‘William Dalrymple’s partisanship : His recent attacks on VS Naipaul’

published on November 9, 2012

Dr. Vijaya Rajiva

In the heated debate on NDTV on playwright Girish Karnad’s virulent attack on VS Naipaul,  ( ‘Was Girish Karnad’s attack on VS Naipaul unfair ? NDTV, Nov. 5,2012 ) and a further discussion on Times Now (with Arnab Goswami) both men William Dalrymple and Girish Karnad displayed an unfortunate personal animosity towards Naipaul for what they called his anti Muslim sentiments (whatever that phrase means!). While Karnad said some silly things such as Naipaul is not an Indian (in Trinidad there is a large Indian community and the present PM there is a woman of Indian origin!) it is the sauve talented art historian Dalrymple’s arguments  that need to be reflected upon. His animus towards Naipaul came out clearly in his exaggerated comparison of Naipaul with Ezra Pound’s fascism. Unlike Karnad’s diatribe this has some deep roots.

At the Times Now discussion Farook Dhondhy (writer and friend of Naipaul) called the comparison disingenuous. Indeed this was a charitable way of putting it. Despite his sauve manner it was a vicious comment from Dalrymple. At the television debates Dalrymple went on to briefly enumerate his long standing criticism of what he saw as Naipaul’s dismissal of the contributions of Indian Muslims to the syncretic culture of India. Here again, Dhondy pointed out that Naipaul was referring to the invading barbarian marauders who came to India starting from the 8th century until the final invasion by Babur in 1525. Babur, as we all know, was the descendant of Genghiz Khan. Dhondy should have added : the barbarism of the Deccan sultanate after the fall of Vijayanagar in 1565 !

It should be pointed out that Naipaul in  his pronouncements mourned the passing of Hindu civilisation with the defeat of the Vijayanagara empire It was   the last of the great Hindu kingdoms in the south, a bastion of Hindu civilisation. His observations were made to The Hindu : ” I think when you see so many Hindu temples of the 10th century or earlier disfigured, defaced, you realise that something terrible happened. I feel that the civilisation of that closed world was mortally wounded by these invasions . . . The Old World is destroyed. That has to be understood. Ancient Hindu India was destroyed.”

Dalrymple quotes this in his UKGuardian article ‘ Trapped in the ruins’ (2004). Likewise, he quotes at the same site, Naipaul’s earlier statement that the first Mughal emperor Babur’s invasion of India “left a deep wound” on the Hindu psyche.

This cry from the heart irks Dalrymple, precisely because he is not a Hindu, whereas Naipaul is of Hindu descent (Karnad’s inane comment notwithstanding). Why does an Englishman, now living in India, and writing about India,  take umbrage at this ? The answer is twofold. Journalist Sheila Reddy writing for Outlookindia, spoke of Dalrymple’s abiding love, the Mughals. What this means is that Dalrymple must needs set up his own binary oppositions, Hindu-Muslim ( a legacy from the Raj)and an innate bias towards one community or other and  which expresses itself in the downplaying, if not downgrading of Hindu sentiment. What is a normal response to the fall of Vijayanagara   from a Hindu is immediately distorted to mean ‘anti Muslim.’

Dalrymple’s partisanship can best be seen in the article he wrote for the UK Guardian. Here, while acknowledging Naipaul’s greatness as a writer, he dismisses Naipaul’s account of Indian history, notably that of the Vijayanagar empire. Ironically, Dalrymple himself is less than accurate :

1. He states that Naipaul’s sources were early British accounts which spoke unfavourably of the Muslim presence in India in order to show how they, the British by comparison, brought law and order. He cites R. Sewell’s Forgotten Empire (1900)     but in fact these were not Naipaul’s sources, which were from travellers prior to the British Occupation such as Ibn Battuta( 14th century)who recorded the glories of the city of Vijayanagara.

2. Dalrymple airily states that there were ‘shifting’ political configurations in the Deccan, which presumably had nothing to do with Hindu Muslim conflict at the time. On the other hand, the scholar  S. Krishnaswami Aiyangar who departs from British and European historiography, has pointed out in two works that it was the Hindu Muslim conflict that motivated not only the Vijayanagara kingdom, but also that of the Hoyasalas ( Ancient India 1911 and South India and her Mohammedan Invaders 1921). When the Hoyasala kings fell they handed the torch over to Vijayanagara, which in turn handed it over to Shivaji and the Marathas. At all times, the aim was to drive out the Muslim sultans who were considered aliens and outsiders to Hindu India. The former in turn were motivated at all times by their hostility to the Hindu rulers, even though they themselves engaged in internecine warfare amongst themselves and were eventually overcome.

At the famous Battle of Raichur (1520) the illustrious Krishnadevaraya of the Vijayanagara empire defeated the Bijapur sultan Adil Shah and recaptured Raichur. At the height of his career Krishnadevaraya fell ill and died. He was succeeded by Rama Raya. The five kings of the Deccan Sultanate (Bijapur,Golkonda, Ahmednagar, Bidar and Berar) joined forces to attack Vijayanagara. They defeated Rama Raya after a heroic battle owing to a ruse. Adil Shah sent a note to Rama Raya saying that he was neutral, even while his armies were planning to attack. Further, a secret arrangement was made between the sultans and the two defecting Muslim commanders of Rama Raya’s army who at a critical moment attacked from the rear. Rama Raya fell from his elephant and was captured by Sultan Nizam Shah. The story then goes as follows : the sultan asks Rama Raya to acknowledge Allah as the only god. Rama Raya refuses. Instead he cries out : Narayana, Krishna Bhagavanta ! His throat is slit and the head is mounted on a pole and displayed.

With this the Battle of Talikota ends (1565). What followed was the plunder, ransacking and pillage of Vijayanagara, which went on for months and almost a year. The capture and murder of Rama Raya is reminiscent of the similar fate of Prithviraj Chauhan in the 12th century at the hands of Mohamed Ghori. Here too there was a similar deception and the rules of war faithfully followed by Prithviraj were violated.

For the next hundred years the successors of Rama Raya and his brother Tirumala Raya (who had fled south after the fall of Vijayanagara) offered resistance to the Muslim rulers and prevented the Islamisation of south India. After this Shivaji and the Marathas took over the task of the defence of Hindu India and the spread of the Maratha empire.

Hence, the Hindu Muslim conflict was not an incidental matter, but was central to the politics of the time.

3. Dalrymple admits  that the first barbarian invasions produced some destruction but he claims it was not on the large scale that Hindus claim it was. Here, he goes against the accounts by Hindu writers. He does not produce any serious evidence from scholars other than  Richard M. Eaton who wrote the book Temple Destruction and Muslim States in Medieval India (2004). This was also a response to Hindu writers such as Sita Ram Goyal and his colleagues ( Hindu Temples- What Happened to Them , 1990). Belgian scholar Koenraad Elst had already written his Negationism in India- Concealing the Record of Islam (1992). Here he compares this denial to the holocaust denial. In 2009 Elst responded again in  to his numerous critics in his book Ayodhya : The Case against the Temple (2009). Romila Thapar whom Dalrymple quotes has been roundly criticised for her inaccurate representations of the Mohammed Ghazni destruction of  the Somnath temple, Gujarat, in 1024.

4. But what most draws Dalrymple’s ire is that Naipaul does not acknowledge the contributions of Islam to the ‘syncretic’ culture of India. On Vijayanagara he quotes from Phillip Wagoner and describes him as a well known Sanskrit scholar. This is clearly inaccurate because Phillip Wagoner is a professor of Art History, at the Wesleyan College, USA, not a Sanskritist. His work focuses primarily on the Islamic component of some of Vijayanagara’s architecture. Neither he nor Dalrymple have anything much to say about the great Hindu temple architecture that dotted the Vijayanagara landscape, mainly because of their lack of knowledge of Vastu Shastra and the elaborate traditions of the Hindu artisans. They are also not very sensitive to Hindu temple architecture.

While the Lotus Mahal may include arched gateways and vaulted ceilings, to call it purely Islamic in style (as Dalrymple does), is something of a stretch. And Dalrymple  as noted above has nothing to say about the many Hindu temples that are clearly derived from Hindu vastu shastra and embody Hindu temple architecture and were numerous in the Vijaynagara kingdom, although as a nod to his thesis of syncretism working in both directions, he admits that in spite of the islamic flourishes the architecture in general is Hindu in spirit.

Naipaul rightly calls Vijaynagara  an example par excellence of Hindu civilisation. The entire ethos was Hindu. The kings were Hindu. And the battles fought against the neighbouring sultans were indeed a fight against an alien, invading occupying enemy. The brief account of the two famous battles against the Bahmani sultans is testimony to the fact that the Vijaynagara rulers saw themselves as defenders of Hindu dharma and its upholders, until the final defeat in 1565 and the torch was passed on to the Marathas.

The question of syncretism no doubt did not pass through Naipaul’s mind since the overwhelming underlying base of all things Indian, whether it was music or the arts or the sciences was Hindu in origin. Since the time of the Sarasvati Sindhu civilisation and the Vedic Agama tradition the civilisational flow was predominantly Hindu, and the Islamic interim was a relatively short and recent interlude in that flow of thousands of years. Many invaders had come and gone and left their small footprints(one can call them syncretic) and the same applied to the Islamic intervention. This must surely have impressed itself deeply on Naipaul’s mind and he most surely saw it as ongoing, despite the setbacks now and then, whether it was the fall of Vijayanagara or any other Hindu kingdom. It was in India alone too that Islam was unable to impose its religious domination, despite the death and destruction of the early barbarian invasions and the imposition of Mughal rule, whereas elsewhere in the Middle East within two decades the indigenous religions were destroyed. Iran is a classic case.  This too cannot have escaped Naipaul’s attention.

This may not be to the liking of apologists of the Islamic intervention. Nor can it be denied by them that recent scholarship has shown Shah Jahan to be anything but romantic towards his wife Mumtaz Mahal.  And here too the 20 plus years of artisan death and  suffering in building the Taj Mahal has also been now documented. While the Taj Mahal has a certain beauty, it does not sit as comfortably on the Indian landscape as for instance the Akshardham (in the capital neighbourhood) whose style and grandeur are rooted in the earth of what Hindus call the Punya Bhumi.

Aesthetic judgments on the Taj Mahal are individual ones and Naipaul does echo some of this in his own  negative observations on the Taj Mahal, and which Dalrymple has quoted in his UK Guardian article of 2004.

The judgments on the misery caused by the building of the Taj Mahal and the alien nature of this monument are truthful ones, although  politically incorrect statements to make. However, Naipaul is not noted for pulling his punches. In the end he does not seem to have said anything deliberately hateful or vindictive, whereas the diatribe of Karnad and Dalrymple’s personal attack are vindictive and churlish to the extreme.
It is not clear why Girish Karnad embarked on it, while Dalrymple’s partisanship is at the root of the problem.

(The writer is a Political Philosopher who taught at a Canadian university).

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