Thursday, October 14, 2010

The meaning of Hindu Kush

Hindu Kush is the name of a mountain range in Afghanistan, one that you have to cross or somehow bypass when going from Central Asia to India. It is commonly said that the name means “Hindu-slaughter”, since the straightforward dictionary meaning of kush is “killing, slaughter”. That is what I learned in my first year in Indology from the famous professor Pierre Eggermont. Now, an Indian self-described secularist challenges this received wisdom, so let us find out the truth at the source.

A certain Rajesh Sinha has addressed Hindu forums with the following claims: “Right-wing Hindus invented baseless stories and fabricated history in order to sow seeds of hatred and enmity between the Hindus and the Muslims. One of their latest fabrication is the ‘Hindu-Killers – Hindu Kush’ myth. They hijacked the word and attributed a different meaning to feed their extreme nationalist ideology and incite the ignorant Hindus. Shrinandan Vyas published a dubious articled based on fabricated references arguing that the Muslims committed genocide against the Hindu population. Obviously this is far from the truth and Insha’Allah (God-Willing), I will dispel this myth since it is a great hindrance to many Hindus to discover the true history of Islam. (…) Shrinandan Vyas deliberately supplied fabricated references to credible sources to strengthen his argument that the ‘Hindu-Kush’ really stands for ‘Hindu-Killers’ (…): ‘All standard reference books agree that the name Hindu Kush of the mountain range in Eastern Afghanistan means 'Hindu Slaughter' or 'Hindu Killer'.’”

Since an Indology professor unconcerned with the Hindu-Muslim conflict told me the same in tempore non suspecto, it is plausible enough that standard reference books would do likewise: “Most of his references (fabricated) are from Encyclopaedia Britannica. He writes that the Encyclopaedia Britannica states: 'The name Hindu Kush first appears in 1333 AD in the writings of Ibn Battutah, the medieval Berber traveller, who said the name meant 'Hindu Killer', a meaning still given by Afghan mountain dwellers who are traditional enemies of Indian plainsmen (i.e. Hindus).’ This statement is nowhere to be found in the Encyclopaedia Britannica nor in Ibn Battutah's writings.”

Note that the statement obscures the specifically Islamic angle and attributes the expression to the “traditional” enmity of the “Afghan mountain dwellers” for the “Indian plainsmen”. This sparing of Islam would be typical of contemporary reference works. If a Hindutva hothead had invented the quotation, he would not have missed the opportunity to make it accuse Islam somehow, quod non. Not having a copy of the Encyclopaedia Britannica handy, we will nonetheless be able to show that the quotations is very probably authentic, simply because it is truthful and its reference to Ibn Battuta is easy to find and to verify. If a quality reference work like the EB speaks out on the topic Hindu Kush, we may expect it to cite the proper sources, and that is what it does in Shrinandan Vyas’s citation.

At any rate, we are in a position to cut out the middle-men, both the EB and Mr. Vyas, and go straight to the original.

According to Rajesh Sinha, “Ibn Battutah (full name, Abu 'abd Allah Muhammad Ibn 'abd Allah Al-lawati At-tanji Ibn Battutah ) was a medieval Arab traveller and the author of one of the most famous travel books. He never alleged that the name Hindu Kush means ‘Hindu Killer’ or ‘Slaughter’ but rather, he affirmed that it means ‘Mountains of India’.”

In fact, “Mountain of India” translates a similar-sounding expression, Hindu Koh. Hindu is the Persian equivalent of Sindhu, and originally meant “India”, or “Indian”. Koh is the Persian word for “mountain”, as in the name of the famous diamond Koh-i-Nûr, “mountain of light”. It is entirely likely that the name Hindu Kush came about as a sarcastic twist on the older name Hindu Koh, viz. on the occasion of an actual mass-killing.

According to Sinha, the EB states: “The name Hindu Kush derives from the Arabic for ‘Mountains of India’.” That is unlikely. Would the learned EB make such mistakes? Kush does not mean “mountain”, and the word that does, Koh, is not Arabic but Persian, as is the word Hindu. Perhaps Sinha’s allegations of “fabrication” are a projection of his very own conduct?

Here is his nod to the true story behind the term: “I will still have to clarify the meaning of ‘Hindu Kush’ for the sake of argumentation. Britannica Encyclopaedia states: In the Pashto language of Afghanistan, it is called ‘Hindu Koh’ which means ‘Mount India’.” Pashto is an Iranian language close to Persian, and in both, Hindu Koh does indeed mean “Indian Mountain”; but not Hindu Kush.

Sinha continues: “Furthermore, the name Hindu Kush did not first appear in 1333 AD in the writings of Ibn Battutah but appeared on a map published circa AD 1000. Britannica Encyclopaedia states: Its earliest known usage occurs on a map published about AD 1000.” But does this refer to the original name Hindu Koh, or to Hindu Kush? Sinha is not good at discerning between the two. At any rate, nobody claims that the term was invented by Ibn Battuta, only that he used it. There were already mass slave transports in 1000 AD, when Mahmud Ghaznavi raided India. And note that the population from which slaves were taken, was not defined as “Indian plainsmen” but as Indian non-Muslims.

So let us finally bypass all the querulous claims by our zealous secularist and see for ourselves what Ibn Battuta himself says. In the bilingual Arabic-French edition Voyages d’Ibn Battûta, texte arabe accompagné d’une introduction, by C. Defremenery and Dr. B.R. Sanguinetti (1854, reprint by Editions Anthropos, Paris), on p.84, we find the Moroccan traveller’s account: “Another motive for our journey was fear of the snow, for in the middle of this route there is a mountain called Hindû Kûsh, meaning ‘Hindu-killer’, because many of the male and female slaves transported from India die in these mountains because of the violent cold and the quantity of snow.”

So there you have it. Yes, Ibn Battuta testifies that Hindu Kush means “Hindu-killer”, and he records it as an already existing name. He also testifies that the name was occasioned by a Muslim mistreatment of Hindus, viz. their massive abduction as slaves to Central Asia. In his account, the name does not refer to one particular incident of slaughter, but to the frequent phenomenon of caravans of Hindu slaves crossing the mountains range and losing part of their cargo to the frost. So, Rajesh Sinha, well on his way to becoming an “eminent historian”, is wrong. I don’t know whether he is deluded or deliberately lying, both are ailments common among his tribe.

While we are at it, we may lay to rest another misconception concerning the name Hindu Kush. It is sometimes claimed that the term refers to the occasion when the Uzbek invader Timur transported a mass of Hindu slaves and a hundred thousand of them died in one unexpectedly cold night on this mountain. This is a case of confusion with another incident, where indeed a hundred thousand Hindus died (were killed) in one night by Timur’s hand. That was in 1399, when Timur, fearing an uprising of his Hindu prisoners to coincide with the battle he was planning for the next days, ordered his men to kill all their Hindu slaves immediately, totaling a hundred thousand killed that very night.

Ibn Battuta lived a few generations earlier, and he mentions “Hindu Kush” as an already well-established usage. In his understanding, the reference was not to one spectacular occasion of slaughter, nor of mass death by frost, but of a recurring phenomenon of slaves on transport dying there. The number of casualties would not amount to a hundred thousand in a single night, but over centuries of Hindu slave transports by Muslim conquerors, the death toll must have totaled a far greater number.

Read more!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Eminent historians displeased with the Ayodhya verdict

Romila Thapar, most eminent among India's eminent historians, protests against the Court verdict acknowledging the historical evidence that the Babar mosque in Ayodhya had been built in forcible replacement of a Rama temple. After two decades of living on top of the world, the eminent historians are brought down to earth.

In 1858, the Virgin Mary appeared to young Bernadette Soubirous in Lourdes, France. Before long, Lourdes became the most important pilgrimage site for Roman Catholics and other Mary worshippers. France prided itself on being a secular state, in some phases (esp. 1905-40) even aggressively secular, yet it acknowledged and protected Lourdes as a place of pilgrimage. Not many French officials actually believe in the apparition, but that is not the point. The believers are human beings, fellow citizens, and out of respect for them does the state respect and protect their pilgrimage.

For essentially the same reason, the mere fact that the Rama Janmabhumi (Rama’s birthplace) site in Ayodhya is well-established as a sacred site for Hindu pilgrimage, is reason enough to protect its functioning as a Hindu sacred site, complete with proper Hindu temple architecture. Ayodhya doesn’t have this status in any other religion, though ancient Buddhism accepted Rama as an earlier incarnation of the Buddha. The site most certainly doesn’t have such a status in Islam, which imposed a mosque on it, the Babri Masjid (ostensibly built in 1528, closed by court order after riots in 1935, surreptitiously turned into a Hindu temple accessible only to a priest in 1949, opened for unrestricted Hindu use in 1986, and demolished by Hindu militants in 1992). So, the sensible and secular thing to do, even for those sceptical of every religious belief involved, is to leave the site to the Hindus. The well-attested fact that Hindus kept going there even when a mosque was standing, even under Muslim rule, is helpful to know in order to gauge its religious importance; but is not strictly of any importance in the present. For respecting its Hindu character, it is sufficient that the site has this sacred status today.

Secular PM Rajiv Gandhi had understood this, and from the court-ordered opening of the locks on the mosque-used-as-temple in 1986, he was manoeuvring towards an arrangement leaving the contentious site to the Hindus in exchange for some other goodies (starting with the Shah Bano amendment and the Satanic Verses ban) for the Muslim leadership. Call it Congress culture or horse-trading, but it would have been practical and saved everyone a lot of trouble.

That is when a group of "eminent historians" started raising the stakes and turning this local communal deal into a clash of civilizations, a life-and-death matter on which the survival of the greatest treasure in the universe depended, viz. secularism. Secure in (or drunk with) their hegemonic position, they didn't limit themselves to denying to the Hindus the right of rebuilding their demolished temple, say: "A medieval demolition doesn't justify a counter-demolition today." Instead, they went so far as to deny the well-established fact that the mosque had been built in forcible replacement of a Rama temple.

Note, incidentally, that the temple demolition, a very ordinary event in Islamic history, was not even the worst of it: as a stab to the heart of Hindu sensibilities, the Babri mosque stood imposed on a particularly sacred site. Just as for Hindus, the site itself was far more important than the building on it, for Islamic iconoclasts the imposition of a mosque on such an exceptional site was a greater victory over infidelism than yet another forcible replacement of a heathen temple with a mosque. Though the historians’ and archaeologists’ ensuing research into the Ayodhya temple demolition has been most interesting, it was strictly speaking superfluous, for the sacred status venerated by most Hindus and purposely violated by some Muslims accrues to the site itself rather than to the architecture on it. The implication for the present situation is that even if Muslims refuse to believe that the mosque had been built in forcible replacement of a temple, they nonetheless know of the site’s unique status for Hindus even without a temple. So, they should be able to understand that any Muslim claim to the site, even by non-violent means such as litigation, amounts to an act of anti-Hindu aggression. Muslims often complain of being stereotyped as fanatical and aggressive, but here they have an excellent opportunity to earn everyone’s goodwill by abandoning their inappropriate claim to a site that is sacred to others but not to themselves.

After the eminent historian’s media offensive against the historical evidence, the political class, though intimidated, didn't give in altogether but subtly pursued its own idea of a reasonable solution. In late 1990, Chandra Shekhar's minority government, supported and largely teleguided by opposition leader Rajiv Gandhi, invited the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Babri Masjid Action Committee (BMAC) to mandate some selected scholars for a discussion of the historical evidence. The politicians had clearly expected that the debate would bring out the evidence and silence the deniers for good. And that is what happened, or at least the first half. Decisive evidence was indeed presented, but it failed to discourage the deniers.

The VHP-employed team presented the already known documentary and archaeological evidence and dug up quite a few new documents confirming the temple demolition (including four that Muslim institutions had tried to conceal or tamper with). The BMAC-employed team quit the discussions but brought out a booklet later, trumpeted as the final deathblow of the temple demolition “myth”. In fact, it turned out to be limited to an attempt at whittling down the evidential impact of a selected few of the pro-temple documents and holding forth on generalities of politicized history without proving how any of that could neutralize this particular evidence. It contained not a single (even attempted) reference to a piece of actual evidence proving an alternative scenario or positively refuting the established scenario. I have given a full account earlier in my book Ayodhya, the Case against the Temple (2002).

Unfortunately, no amount of evidence could make the deniers mend their ways. Though defeated on contents, the "eminent historians" became only more insistent in denying the evidence. They especially excelled in blackening and slandering those few scholars who publicly stood by the evidence, not even sparing the towering archaeologist BB Lal. Overnight, what had been the consensus in Muslim, Hindu and European sources, was turned into a "claim" by "Hindu extremists". Thus, the eminent historians managed to intimate a Dutch scholar who had earlier contributed even more elements to the already large pile of evidence for the temple demolition into backtracking. Most spectacularly, they managed to get the entire international media and the vast majority of India-related academics who ever voiced an opinion on the matter, into toeing their line. These dimly-informed India-watchers too started intoning the no-temple mantra and slandering the dissidents, to their faces or behind their backs, as "liars", "BJP prostitutes", and what not. In Western academe, dozens chose to toe this party-line of disregarding the evidence and denying the obvious, viz. that the Babri Masjid (along with the Kaaba in Mecca, the Mezquita in Cordoba, the Ummayad mosque in Damascus, the Aya Sophia in Istambul, the Quwwatu'l-Islam in Delhi, etc.) was one of the numerous ancient mosques built on, or with materials from, purposely desecrated or demolished non-Muslim places of worship.

Until the Babri Masjid demolition by Hindu activists on 6 December 1992, Congress PM Narasimha Rao was clearly pursuing the same plan of a bloodless hand-over of the site to the Hindus in exchange for some concessions to the Muslims. The Hindu activists who performed the demolition were angry with the leaders of their own Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for seemingly abandoning the Ayodhya campaign after winning the 1991 elections with it, but perhaps the leaders had genuinely been clever in adjusting their Ayodhya strategy to their insiders’ perception of a deal planned by the PM. After the demolition, Rao milked it for its anti-BJP nuisance value and gave out some pro-mosque signals; but a closer look at his actual policies shows that he stayed on course. His Government requested the Supreme Court to offer an opinion on the historical background of the Ayodhya dispute, knowing fully well from the outcome of the scholars’ debate that an informed opinion could only favour the old consensus (now known as the “Hindu claim”). In normal circumstances, it is not a court's business to pronounce on matters of history, but then whom else could you trust to give a fair opinion when the professional historians were being so brazenly partisan?

The Supreme Court sent the matter on, or back, to the Allahabad High Court, which, after sitting on the Ayodhya case since 1950, at long last got serious about finding out the true story. It ordered a ground-penetrating radar search and the most thorough excavations. In this effort, carried out in 2003, the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) employed a large number of Muslims in order to preempt the predictable allegation of acting as a Hindu nationalist front. The findings confirmed those of the excavations in the 1950s, 1970s and 1992: a very large Hindu religious building stood at the site before the Babri Masjid. The Allahabad High Court has now accepted these findings by India's apex archaeological body. But not everyone is willing to abide by the verdict.

In particular, the eminent historians are up in arms. In a guest column in The Hindu (2 Oct. 2010: “The verdict on Ayodhya, a historian’s opinion”), , Prof. Romila Thapar claims that the ASI findings had been "disputed". Oh well, it is true that some of her school had thought up the most hilariously contrived objections, which I held against the light in my booklet Ayodhya, the Finale: Science vs. Secularism in the Excavations Debate. . Thus, it was said that the presence of pillar-bases doesn’t imply that pillars were built on it; you see, some people plant pillar bases here and there once in a while, without any ulterior motive of putting them to some good use. And it was alleged that the finding of some animal bones in one layer precludes the existence of a temple (and somehow annuls the tangible testimony of the vast foundation complex and the numerous religious artefacts); and more such hare-brained reasoning. The picture emerging from all this clutching at straws was clear enough: there is no such thing as a refutation of the overwhelming ASI evidence, just as there was no refutation of the archaeological and documentary evidence presented earlier.

Today, I feel sorry for the eminent historians. They have identified very publicly with the denial of the Ayodhya evidence. While politically expedient, and while going unchallenged in the academically most consequential forums for twenty years, that position has now been officially declared false. It suddenly dawns on them that they have tied their names to an entreprise unlikely to earn them glory in the long run. We may now expect frantic attempts to intimidate the Supreme Court into annulling the Allahabad verdict, starting with the ongoing signature campaign against the learned Judges’ finding; and possibly it will succeed. But it is unlikely that future generations, unburdened with the presently prevailing power equation that made this history denial profitable, will play along and keep on disregarding the massive body of historical evidence. With the Ayodhya verdict, the eminent historians are catching a glimpse of what they will look like when they stand before Allah’s throne on Judgment Day.

Read more!