Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Tavleen Singh on the India Ideas Conclave incident



Somewhat belatedly, I find that my adventure at the first India Ideas Conclave in December 2014 ( seems to have been noticed by veteran journalist Tavleen Singh. In her book Modi Messiah. A Tale of Great Expectations (HarperCollins, Delhi 2020, p.223), she writes that the thinkfest


"began with a blessing from Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. I saw this as an indication that the India Foundation was not afraid of sending the message that it functioned in a country in which 80 per cent of the people were Hindu.”


It was indeed widely expected to be a Hindu gathering, with the caveat that most Hindus careful about their reputation say “Indian” when they mean “Hindu”. As for “80%”: in the usual manipulation of the definition of “Hindu”, this is a maximalist interpretation, including groups who have partly or wholly acquired the status of non-Hindu minority (Sikhs, Jains, Veerashaivas, the Sarna, Donyi Pollo and other tribals), or who are anti-Hindu though born Hindu (crypto-Christians, Naxalites, Urban Naxals a.k.a. secularists). But leave that for another discussion.




“If this was indeed the plan it unraveled early that morning when a Belgian Indologist and Hindutva sympathizer called Koenraad Elst had to be sent home in disgrace because of his remark on Islam. It was not what he said about Islam that was wrong so much as the offensive manner in which he said it.”


The session in which I participated was a debate about the question whether Islamic terrorism, in particular the then-fresh atrocities committed by the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, was genuine Islam. My two debating partners, encouraged by the moderator, argued that it had nothing to do with Islam. This was obviously also the message that the organizers wanted to promote, which is why it is strange that they had invited me; apparently they hadn’t read me carefully. I argued that the IS or the Taliban knew Islam far better than any of those present and that they could easily hold their own in an Islamic court by showing how their actions were imitations of Mohammed’s model behaviour, the very basis of Islamic law. No Islamic judge could give a verdict that amounted to saying: “Mohammed was wrong.”


And speaking of “wrong”: what was deemed wrong about my performance was not “the offensive manner in which I said it” but very much “what I said about Islam”, and to which nobody there had a convincing answer. Nor does Tavleen Singh, even after having had a few years to think up one.


There was nothing wrong with the manner in which I spoke, which was quite good-humoured. Indeed that was precisely the indignant objection of one (self-declared Swiss) Islamophile’s objection during Q&A time: that I looked like having a good time linking the terrorists’ actions with Mohammed’s model behaviour. He must have had this image of fanatical foaming-at-the-mouth “Islamophobia” in his mind and became angry when I failed to live up to It. Looking back, there was indeed something humorous about how my adversaries in the debate were contorting themselves while I had the full force of scriptural authority on my side.


“A Muslim diplomat stood up halfway through Elst's speech and walked out. Ram Madhav, who was seated in the front row, intervened and the session was abruptly ended.”


Here she proves to be poorly informed. That the (to my knowledge: two West-Asian) Muslims present showed their displeasure, is a fact. But the session was not ended abruptly, nor was Ram Madhav publicly involved. After the session’s normal completion, and during an exceptionally enthusiastic applause from the audience, one of the organizers (if memory serves: Swapan Dasgupta) came on stage to apologize for what I had said. Everything went normal until late that evening, when two youngsters came to find me in my room to tell me the organizers wanted me to leave (indeed, they had already rebooked my airplane ticket). This was not “in disgrace” but because they reportedly feared someone could go to the police accusing me of disrupting religious harmony, a non-bailable offence.


“The next thing we knew was that Elst had been put back on a flight back to Belgium. The conference was intended to create a new idea of India but definitely not one in which there would be no room for Muslims."


Did anyone say that “there would be no room for Muslims” in India? Having written a lot about communal issues, I challenge Tavleen Singh to find any such utterance in my work. In particular, let her face the actual contents of what I said there and then, readily available: Anyway, the topic in that debate was not what political conclusions to draw from the facts about Islam, but first to establish clearly what those facts are. After that, we can consider whether any practical implications follow from them.


Shankar Sharan said...

It is astonishing that Tavleen Singh, a veteran journalist, misreporting on several counts. That too about an event which hundreds witnessed first hand. Dozens of them writers, scholars.
Apparently, she is old now, forgetful. I see no reason why she would lie, she is no politician too.
I was in the event and wrote in detail about the incident.
In fact, I questioned the two foreign Muslim dignitaries, at tea break, that "since Islam is also a political system isn't criticizing & ever trying to defeat it is a normal thing to do in democracy?" The two gentlemen didn't reply.

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