This is the chapter on Khushwant Singh from my book, How India’s Intellectuals Spread Lies
Khushwant Singh is perhaps the most widely read author in India. A critically acclaimed litterateur, historian, and journalist, he has the rare quality of conveying his thoughts without taking recourse to jargon or holier-than-thou posturing. His two-volume History of the Sikhs was critically acclaimed.
Unlike Arundhati Roy, Singh is an erudite person; so his writing is backed with some degree of authority. But when it comes to religion and, in particular, Islam, he trips; he starts pontificating; clichés and shibboleths gush out from his pen; worse, he simply echoes the falsehoods that reverberate in our climate of opinion. Let’s begin with his views on religion.
He expounded his views on the subject in an essay, Need for a New Religion in India. As the name of the essay suggests, Singh makes little distinction between religion and everyday utilities; we need religion as much as, presumably, we need houses, clothes, cars, telephones, etc. He falls prey to what Friedrich A Hayek calls “constructivism”—that is, “the innocent sounding formula that, since man has himself created the institutions of society and civilization, he must also be able to alter them at will so as to satisfy his desires or wishes.” Singh seems to derive his theory from the famous Marxian dictum that religion is the opium of the people; the natural corollary, according to Singh, is that if opium can be used for evil purposes—and religion is mostly evil—it can also be used for good purposes. What is true for medical science should also be true for political science.
The essentials of the new faith he would like to set up are utilitarian. “My new religion for India would be primarily based on the work ethic. We have an apt motto which needs to be put into effect: araam haraam hai [a relaxation relaxed life is sinful]. It will provide leisure-time to recoup energy to resume work which yields material benefits.” So far so good. But then Singh says, “Laws must be passed to limit the right to leave property to descendants and begging must be outlawed.” A curious demand coming from a liberal.
For, in the first place, as far as inheritance is concerned, it is the right of the owner of property how he dispenses with it after his death, and not the right of the beneficiary. As American author Nathaniel Branden wrote, “In considering the issue of inherited wealth, one must begin by recognizing that the crucial right involved is not that of the heir but of the original producer of the wealth.”
Second and more important, there is an invariable relation between liberty and property in any society; one can’t exist without the other. No less a thinker than John Locke, one of the pillars of liberal thought and a formulator of democratic processes, has written about the importance of the linkage between the two. InAn Essay Concerning the True Original, Extent and End of Civil Government, he reaches the conclusion:
But though men when they enter into society give up equality, liberty and executive power they had in the state of nature into the hands of the society, to be so far disposed of by the legislative as the good of the society shall require; yet it being only with an intention in everyone to preserve himself, his liberty and property (for no rational creature can be supposed to change his condition with an intention to be worse), the power of the society, or legislative constituted by them can never be supposed to extend farther than the common good, but is obliged to secure everyone’s property by providing against those three defects above-mentioned that made the state of nature so unsafe and uneasy… [emphasis added]
This is not merely political philosophy or abstract theory; India has learnt the truth of this lesson at its own expense. When the founding fathers of our republic authored the Constitution, they incorporated the Right to Property as a fundamental right. Within three decades of the Constitution, this right was downgraded; now, it is merely a legal right. It is pertinent to note here that the mutilation of the Constitution was primarily the work of the Leftists: politicians of socialist persuasion who took recourse to populist measures like land reform through legislatures; their intellectual apologists who provided legitimacy to such measures; academics, press, all other means of influencing public opinion which were infiltrated with radicals. And while all this was happening, liberals like Khushwant Singh were either mute spectators to or willing accomplices in the creation of a climate of opinion against property. They never realized that true liberalism without the right to property is like omelet without eggs.
It is not only on property that he is in agreement with the Left. Let’s go back to his “new religion.” Actually, this seems to be a quixotic exercise in social engineering—that bane of the twentieth century. Apparently, Singh wants, if it were possible, to legislate a new society.
To begin with, astrology should be “banned by legal enactment,” otherwise it would continue to govern the lives of people to their detriment. Then, he would also ban “shikar [hunting] and the trapping of birds and animals.” Further, “family planning must be made an integral part of our religion” (Reading this essay, one sometimes get confused whether Singh wrote about a new religion or a new constitution). Again, “the preservation of our environment must also become an essential part of our religion.” Here he also suggests interference in religious affairs, something that has caused so much bloodshed and trouble in the past, the revolt of 1857 being a prime example. But then Singh does not seem to have heard of—at least, he does not subscribe to—the law of unintended consequences. Otherwise, he would not have suggested another ban on the Hindu-Sikh custom of cremating the dead on funeral pyres.
In tune with fashionable environmentalism, he offers a green faith: “At every religious ceremony, be it the thread-ceremony, baptism, marriage or death, provision should be made for planting of forests.”
Singh tries to customize and trivialize religion because he does not seem to know much about it, otherwise he would not have written in his essay on new religion: “Every religion has its own name and concept of God. He is Jehovah, Ishwar, Parmatma, Rabb, Khuda, Allah and Wahguru… However, different the ways of conceiving Him, what all religions have in common are the powers they attribute to Him. He is the Creator, Preserver and Destroyer. He is Omniscient (all-knowing), Omnipotent (all-powerful) and Omnipresent; He is just, benign and merciful to the faithful and at the same time an angry God who metes out dire punishment to transgressors…”
Singh got it all wrong, for the way Singh has described God is not general; this is the Judaic-Christian concept of God, as John Hick calls it in his authoritative Philosophy of Religion. Further, the concepts of Judaic-Christian God and, say, Ishwar are not identical or even similar. According to Hick, “God is conceived in the Judaic-Christian tradition as the infinite, self-existent Creator of everything else that exists. In this doctrine, creation means far more than fashioning new forms from an already given material (as a builder makes a house, or a sculptor at statue); it means creation out of nothing—creatio ex nihilo—the summoning of a universe into existence when otherwise there was only God.” God says, ‘Let there be light,’ and there is light. As Hick puts it in technical terms, “God has absolute ontological independence.” Needless to say, Hick’s analysis of God and religion is correct.
In Hinduism, however, there is no unanimity of views on the forms or even the existence of Ishwhar. The Sankhya school of thought denies the existence of Ishwar, while the Vaisheshika school gives arguments for his existence. However, Ishwar does not enjoy absolute ontology; for Ishwar is said to be guided by the Law of Karma. Besides, Ishwar does not create matter ex nihilo, as Judaic-Christian God does; Ishwar is co-eternal with matter.
It is amazing how a scholar of Khushwant Singh’s stature fails to comprehend the nature and role of religion, finally agreeing with Leftists and other deracinated, secular intellectuals on the subject—that all religions are essentially the same. As Singh writes, “five items” are “generally regarded as the pillars of all religions: belief in God; reverence for the founders of religions; the status of scriptures; the sanctity accorded to places of worship and pilgrimage; and the use of prayer and ritual.” He ignores that several schools of Buddhism and Jainism are atheistic; a more recent phenomenon is Marxism.
This is secular leveling of the phenomena of religion; its myriad forms are made to look alike. Hick has most appropriately defined religion, by using Wittgenstein’s concept of “language games,” in terms of “family resemblances.” According to Hick,
In much religion there is the worship of a God or gods; but in Theravada Buddhism, for example, there is not. Again, religion often makes for social cohesion; yet in some strands it is aptly characterized as “what man does with his solitariness” (AN Whitehead). Again, religion often makes for the inner harmony of the individual; yet some of the greatest religious innovators seemed to their contemporaries to be unbalanced and even insane. The family resemblances model allows for such differences…
Within the ramifying set of family resemblances there is, however, one feature which is extremely widespread even though not universal. This is a concern with what is variously called salvation or liberation… All the greatly developed world faiths… offer a transition from a radically unsatisfactory state to a limitlessly better one.
Interestingly, Khushwant Singh misses the essential feature of all religions, the concern called salvation. He fails to see that religion is the human response to the world—the world we live in, the world which is often beyond the ken of rational comprehension. Religion gives meaning to the world, which otherwise seems so full of contradictions and unjustness; often, it gives a meaning to our lives. In the ultimate analysis, religion is rationalization par excellence. It explains the myriad injustices, contradictions, incongruities, paradoxes, and absurdities man faces on earth. Why are there wars, earthquakes, floods, famines, and other calamities, claiming so many innocent lives? Why are so many young lives cut short in accidents and crimes, whereas almost all politicians live long? Why do so many good people suffer? Why do scoundrels flourish? Why do so many people suffer from so many diseases? Why are some people born with congenital diseases? There are a large number of such questions which no philosopher or philosophy has been able to answer convincingly. Religion does offer answers; to some the answers may not be logically tenable or philosophically sound; but then ordinary people do not seek recondite syllogisms that impress logicians; people seek explanations that are simple as well as all-encompassing, taking care of all aspects of life. Religion mostly relies on—what logical positivist philosopher A.J. Ayer called—“unverifiable” principles and entities, the theory or karma and Christian God being two examples of unverifiable imperatives of religion. Intellectuals may not like it, but religion regulates our lives in more ways than it is recognized by them. Our festivals and carnivals, celebrations and mourning, customs and rituals—all spring from our religious beliefs, molding the modus vivendi into the grammar of faith.
The purpose of the little discussion on religion is to show that Singh has little idea about the subject, even though religion is of profound significance for human existence. More dangerous are his pronouncements based on, and derived from, his little learning in religion.
Singh’s book, The End of India, is the result of the secular leveling of all religious phenomena. Published in 2003, it was written, in his own words, “in anguish, anger, and bouts of depression”; for “we have lost in Gujarat.” Needless to say, “we” stands for secular parties, forces, individuals, etc; needless to say again that Godhra—the place where three score Rambhaktas were incinerated by Muslim fanatics, and which triggered off the Gujarat riots—does not find a mention in Singh’s account. No Godhra, only Gujarat—this has become the leitmotif of Indian liberals, in the same fashion as Vietnam was for the Left in a bygone era. You talk to any liberal about the political situation, and he would start chanting the Gujarat mantra, accompanied with myriad falsehoods.
The second essay of Singh’s book, ‘The Sangh And Its Demons,’ of Singh’s book begins with a modern falsehood:
All religions have and continue to have bigots who give founders of their religion and their teachings a bad name. Christians had the inquisitors who burnt innocent men and women at the stakes as heretics. Muslims have their Islamic fraternities whose leaders pronounce fatwas condemning people to death, ordering women to shroud themselves in veils and imposing draconian rules of behavior on the community. Sikhs had their Bhindranwale who forbade men to dye or roll up their beards, women to wear saris or jeans or put bindis on their foreheads, and who said nasty things about dhotian-topian waaley—the Hindus. Not to be outdone, Hindus produced their own fanatics who condemn Christianity and Islam as alien religions, and while mouthing platitudes about being the most tolerant religion on earth, hound Christian missionaries and target Muslim places of worship for destruction. In the name of Shri Rama, they demolished the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, and Gujarat represented the worst face of religious extremism.
Notice the religious leveling—“all religions.” The problem with the intellectuals like Singh—and, of course, with the Left—is that they draw unwarranted and generalized conclusions from well-recognized truths and beliefs. For instance, “all men are equal” means that any political system or social order should treat all men as equal; that is, nobody should be discriminated against by the state or by the society on account of their creed, color, caste, or community. However, the Leftists and liberals derive unjustifiable conclusions from this belief, making it appear that in their equality, all men are entitled to equal remuneration, wealth, etc. Such conclusions are untenable and illegitimate. In fact, great philosophers and statesmen never drew such conclusions. Abraham Lincoln, for instance, once said that the Negro was not equal to the whites; but he emphasized on the Negro’s right to equality in the sense that he should have the unfettered right to endeavor.
In these politically correct times, leveling has increased its own scope; now religion has been included in its ambit. So, according to liberals like Khushwant Singh, all religions are equal; which implies that all religious communities are also “equal”; and, since all religious communities are equal, it is possible to see a pattern in all communities: there are good people who follow the essence of their respective faiths; and there are “bigots who give founders of their religion and their teachings a bad name.” All this seems logical to the liberal; conclusions are drawn from givens; corollaries are derived from proven theorems. With mathematical certainty.
Fact, however, is that the liberal mind is unable or unwilling to see the fallacies of such syllogism. For, all religions are not equal. As we saw earlier, even with “family resemblances” there are certain fundamental, ontological differences between different religions, one being between the concepts of God in the Semitic tradition and Ishwar in the Indian tradition. Even between Semitic religions, there are such differences; for instance, Bible is not the word of God, while Koran is. Further, according to Christians, Jesus is the Son of God, while Islam explicitly rules out any relation between Allah and man. ; therefore, Prophet Mohammad is a man, the perfect man.
Since there are fundamental differences between various religions, there are also fundamental differences between religious communities. Liberals like Khushwant Singh keep chanting the mantra that religion is, and should, be the private affair of a person. But it is not so; quite regularly and inevitably, it becomes a public affair. When the Kumbh fair is held, the entire local administration is geared up to supervise the arrangements; when Kanwarias carry the Ganga water to their homes, traffic is diverted by the authorities, and often the public at large is put to great inconvenience; the fortunes of markets are linked with festivals like Diwali, Holi, and Christmas, and these festivals are linked with religious faith; subsidy is given to Haj pilgrims, which obviously impacts the public exchequer. Further, observance of conventions, rituals, and customs affects a whole range of activities. During Navaratras, for instance, a number of restaurants do not serve non-vegetarian food; in Muslim countries and Muslim localities, the entire mode of social existence undergoes a change during the month of Ramzan. In fact, one finds hundreds of examples all around to dispel the notion that religion is and should be the private affair of an individual.
This implies that the nature of every religion matters; it molds its followers according to its central beliefs and doctrines, theology and mythology, conventions and traditions, customs and rituals. Liberals like Khushwant Singh may have little to do with religion and its baggage, but most adherents are not like that; consequently, their lives are invariably intertwined with the tenets of their faith, by the myths that emanate from the belief system, by the rituals and customs they follow as believers.
Therefore, if a religion is inherently violent, its followers are more likely to take recourse to terrorism; if the precepts of a religion explicitly instruct that women are inferior human beings, they can never expect gender justice in such a society; if the Book of a religion exhorts the faithful to vanquish and eliminate the unbelievers, the followers of that religion would definitely show belligerence and bigotry; if a religion is decidedly closed and unambiguously prohibits scholarly pursuits, its adherents are likely to live in a benighted sphere. On the other hand, the believers of religions which preach harmony and fairness, which open up the vistas of mind and spirit, which whet the cerebral appetite—the believers of such religions are more likely to be peace-loving, tolerant, fair, and intellectually inclined.
In other words, all religions are no more “equal” than all men are equal. All efforts at leveling, of religions as well as of men, are the result of inadequate understanding of the subject and invariably result into disastrous consequences. Let’s see some of the consequences. In another essay, ‘Communalism—An Old Problem,’ in the same book, Singh writes:
By encouraging regressive mullahs and orthodox leaders and treating Indian Muslims as a homogeneous mass, the Congress consigned the whole community to an intellectual and social ghetto. The Muslim closed his mind, he withdrew into himself as a tortoise withdraws into its shell. This helped the BJP demonize the community.
This is a typical liberal view on Muslims, obviously in line with the attitude that Muslims and Islam are never responsible for anything; it is always imperialism, neo-imperialism, Orientalism, Hindu nationalism, or media bias that are the culprits. In this case, the culprit is the Grand Old Party, all this despite the fact that the Congress has always been accused of appeasing the Muslims— and rightly so, because whether it was under Mahatma Gandhi or Jawaharlal Nehru in the first half of the twentieth century, or under Rajiv Gandhi in the second half, the Congress always tried to woo Muslim political support. But in Khushwant Singh’s scheme of things, the party becomes the main accused. And the accomplices? Well, the usual suspects, “regressive mullahs and orthodox leaders,” as if they are parasitic entities on the body-politic of Islam, inconsistent with and hostile to its essential teachings. Khushwant Singh, and other liberals, seem incapable of understanding that the so-called “regressive mullahs and orthodox leaders” are the real representatives of Islam (as discussed in a separate chapter); and this is the reason that their hold over the community has survived the threats of Arabism (in the form of Baathism in the Arab world), secularism, and socialism.
Singh persists in the blame-somebody-else policy:
The Muslim attitude is not a political but a national problem. We did not do enough after 1947 to rehabilitate them in the national mainstream.
This is not correct. The Indian Constitution does not discriminate against anybody on the basis of caste, community, creed, or ethnicity (though the Pakistan Constitution is explicitly discriminates against the minorities). There is nothing in any of India’s laws and statutes that discriminates against Muslims. In fact, the Muslims, along with other religious minorities, are especially protected by institutions such as the Minorities Commission and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). Singh may say that though there is nothing on paper that shows discrimination against the Muslims, the discrimination is in attitude and in practice; it pervades the climate of opinion; it subtly infects the polity, the culture, academics, and the media.
Let’s begin with politics. Every political party is in the business of wooing Muslims, often at the expense of Hindus, a tendency that the BJP once denounced as minorityism. Later, the BJP also did the same thing—organizing Iftar get-togethers, placating Pakistan and Bangladesh, turning a Nelson’s eye to the atrocities on Hindus in these countries. All major political parties champion the cause of Muslims, in Parliament and outside it. Three Muslims have been Presidents of the nation; one was Union home minister; many others have held important offices. Surely, in the political domain, there has been little discrimination.
In art and culture, a large number of Muslims have earned big money and won awards, often from the state. Cinema, painting, literature—Muslims are everywhere. Mohammad Rafi, Dilip Kumar, Meena Kumari, Aamir Khan, Shahrukh Khan, Javed Akhtar, MF Hussain—all of them are household names.
As far as academics and the media are concerned, we have seen in this chapter and others how our great intellectuals twist facts, distort truths, and peddle lies to misguide the people about the real nature of Islam. So, what else does Khushwant Singh want us to do to “rehabilitate” the Muslims in the national mainstream? He talks as if the Muslims were the victims of Partition, whereas the fact is that they were responsible for it.
Again, he says:
The non-Muslim has always had it deeply embedded in his mind that Muslims are bigots, fanatics and treacherous. We were brought up on tales of heroism of Prithviraj Chauhan, Maharana Pratap, Guru Gobind Singh and Chhatrapati Shivaji. All our heroes were non-Muslims who had fought Muslims. No one in our pantheon was Muslim. Akbar was just a token figure. We were exposed to evidence of what Muslim conquerors had done: desecrated our temples, massacred our citizenry and imposed humiliating taxes on them.
Singh is right: all Muslims are not bigots, fanatics, and treacherous. Further, our history has been distorted, by the Left as well as the Right. Yet, certain facts cannot be denied. Muslims did desecrate temples, massacre Hindu citizenry, and impose the jaziya. There is a mountain of evidence to confirm all this, dug out and presented by historian Sita Ram Goel (about whose work we shall discuss later). I would like to add that these facts should not be used to settle scores with Muslims in today’s world. As for the heroism of Prithviraj Chauhan, Maharana Pratap, Chhatrapati Shivaji, and Guru Gobind Singh, the people of India appreciate them because they had the courage to take on the might of Muslims in the medieval period.
Fortunately, the people are much more sensible than intellectuals like Khushwant Singh. People are accused of being prejudiced, but their prejudices are based on solid empirical evidence, for they believe in the sovereignty of sense perception—quite unlike the liberals who blindly borrow from the Left. So, Singh jettisons empirical evidence, commonsense, and reason to blindly follow Leftist theory. This is evident from the observations he makes—or, to be precise, the Leftist lies he parrots—in the apocalyptically named, The End of India:
If the Muslims killed and destroyed, the non-Muslims (the Rajputs, Jats, Marathas and Sikhs) did no less.
When Brahminical Hinduism gained favor again [that is, when Buddhism ceased to be “on the ascendant in India”] with ruling dynasties, especially in the ninth and tenth centuries, Buddhists were persecuted and their places of worship demolished. Later, in the reign of many Muslim rulers, Hindus were discriminated against and their temples destroyed.
The instigation [for communal riots] comes from the educated middle class of tradesmen (incidentally, the constituency of the BJP) and politicians (except perhaps the communists).
If they [Muslims] are foreigners, we all are. The only people who are indigenous are the adviasis, whom we have all but made extinct.
I attribute much of the blame for the resurgence of Hindu fundamentalism to serials on the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
Khushwant Singh goes on and on, echoing the weird theories, fantasies, and myths spread by the Left, further muddying the already perverted public discourse. He doesn’t question any of the Leftist assertions. He reminds one of Euthyphro, one of the famous dialogues of Plato. In this dialogue, Socrates chides Euthyphro for his cocksureness: “You are languid through your affluence in wisdom.”
Thanks to his languor, Singh is unwilling to see through the subterfuge of the Left. For instance, how it creates confusion in scales. The depredations of Muslims, and the scale of such depredations, are too well-known to be repeated; yet, the Left mixes them with stray and sporadic violence perpetrated by non-Muslims against Muslims; and Singh languidly accepts the lie, saying non-Muslims “did no less.”
Despite all his scholarship, experience, age, and exposure, Khushwant Singh repeatedly falls prey to the liberals’ vice: he unquestioningly follows the Left.
Ravi Shanker Kapoor is a journalist and author. He upholds freedom of expression, individual liberty, free market, and open society. He is an uncompromising opponent of Islamism, communism, and other totalitarian ideologies. He is also a critic of intellectuals, as evident from his third book, How India’s Intellectuals Spread Lies (Vision Books).