Temple-mosque controversy brings issue of historical wrongs back in focus – Arvind Sharma

Vishwanath Temple & Gyanvapi Mosque

Arvind SharmaIt was the same religio-political process which explains both the conversion of people to the new faith of Islam, which also explains the destruction of the Hindu temples. – Prof. Arvind Sharma

As with The Kashmir Files, as soon as one decides to go off the topic, something happens to bring it back into focus. The recent agitation in Delhi for renaming the Qutub Minar as Vishnu Stambha, and replacing the names of roads named after the Mughal emperors, who were “foreign invaders”, with those of indigenous heroes, to say nothing of the Gyanvapi Mosque controversy in Benares, seems to suggest that issues of historical justice are here to stay and should therefore be probed more deeply.

One must begin by recognising the ethical importance of the righting of moral wrongs. In our popular imagination, a crime comes first, which is then followed by punishment. But the fact of the matter is that it is only after a punishment has been instituted for some act that it really becomes a crime. Once we realise this, the importance of rectifying historical wrongs becomes obvious, because until a penalty is laid down for a historical wrong it does not really qualify as a wrong, just like crime. If no penalty is made for wrongs suffered by those subjected to the evils of imperialism, they just remain moral evils; they become wrongs only when the righting of those wrongs is provided for. In other words, countries which practised imperialism could get away with what was done if no effort was mounted to right these wrongs. So long as a party can get away by saying “oh that is history”, with the implication that nothing can or could or should be done about the matter, it does get away with it unless its righting is insisted on. It is this insistence which makes the act accountable.

A second point needs to be made, again in this context, that one should not be afraid of the exercise because once wrong is acknowledged, often the dynamics of the process is altered by the acknowledgement itself. If we take the actual experience of South Africa into account, which has had some experience of truth and reconciliation, then once the reluctant party gathered enough moral courage to admit the wrong, the aggrieved party came to recognise the fallibility of all human beings. This brings the moral emotion of forgiveness into play. In any case, a resolution of the issue becomes easier because the very acknowledgement of it changes the dynamics to a remarkable degree.

The third point relates to the aggrieved party. It has to decide whether it will seek a resolution in terms of the past, the present, or the future. If one focuses on the past, the key term then becomes compensation. Thus those who suffered the wrongs of slavery in the past may insist on being compensated for it. If, however, they chose to focus on the present, then they may insist on rectifying the present consequences of slavery, such as those arising from denial of education, for example. The key word here becomes affirmative action. Thus reservations in educational institutions, an extension of credit on especially favourable terms for businesses and so on will be the favoured outcomes. Those inclined to forgiveness, who choose to focus on the future, may want to assure that no future discrimination of the kind, which hamstrung the community in the past, should have to be faced. The key word here then would be what is called diversity these days. Of course those who insist on having their pound of flesh, so to say, may insist on all three dimensions of time being addressed.

But it is the fourth point which may turn out to be as critical as it might prove controversial. In debates on the question of the righting of historical wrongs, the role of the present generation in rectifying those wrongs becomes a crucial issue. There is a tendency on the part of those on whom the historical burden of undoing the wrongs may fall, to claim that they should not be held responsible for shouldering that burden. So modern Muslims might well wonder why they should be held responsible for what Aurangzeb did. Even some Hindus, who feel the need for the wrongs to be righted, sometimes express the view that present day Muslims should not be held responsible for what may have been done by their ancestors.

I do not wish to question the practicality, and even more so the element of nobility in this view, especially when expressed by those who may perceive themselves to have been the victims of the historical wrongs. But I do wish to question its logic.

The present generation, on whom the burden of dealing with the historical wrong falls, is after all a product of the same process which produced that wrong. It was the same religio-political process which explains both the conversion of people to the new faith of Islam, which also explains the destruction of the Hindu temples. It is the same process, the British conquest of India, which explains the transfer of wealth calculated at around roughly $450 trillion over the period of British rule, which also explains the conversion of many Hindus to Christianity during that very period. It was the same social system that, on the one hand, held back the lower castes who might have been educationally disadvantaged, which empowered the upper castes to benefit from English education disproportionately, and enabled the upper castes to dominate the higher echelons of the administration, a situation which seems to persist to this day.

In other words, these are two sides of the same coin and therefore, at least logically, the Muslims, the Christians, and upper-caste Hindus may not be fully justified in trying to wash their hands of it when it comes to the righting of historical wrongs associated with Islamic iconoclasm, British looting of India, and caste inequities in Hindu India. – Firstpost, 29 May 2022

The author, formerly of the IAS, is the Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill University in Montreal Canada, where he has taught for over thirty years. He has also taught in Australia and the United States and at Nalanda University in India. He has published extensively in the fields of Indian religions and world religions. 

Akbaruddin Owaisi visits the tomb of Aurangzeb at Khuldabad in Maharashtra

%d bloggers like this: