Withering Heights

Written by Rishi Raj | Updated: Sep 2 2012, 06:20am hrs
Zindagi ke har ik mod pe nazar aayaa, Teri nigaah-e-karam kaa ghanna ghanna saayaaa... (Firaq)

Eminent journalist and author Arun Shouries range, in terms of mastery over subjects, generally makes scholars jealous. The reason is simple: Shourie picks up a subject, however alien it maybe to his immediate vocation, then immerses himself so deep into it and with such meticulous research, finally bringing forth such new dimensions, that the works are more reviled than praised! One can understand the venom spewed on his works by pamphleteers for whom Shourie is no stranger. But when academic scholars also adopt the same methodology, one can only infer that it is pure jealousy and nothing else. In Indias closed, narrow-minded academic world, specialists do not welcome either a fresh approach or a newcomer who commits the crime of plainly speaking the facts. This is what Shouries works are all about and the reason why they receive more brickbats than bouquets. Every student of social science is taught: know the author before you read his work. And the maxim becomes even more important if you are picking up any book by Shourie. In short, Shourie can be faulted on several aspects but not on facts. Critics therefore take recourse to attacking the interpretations drawn by him. But the master writer, never at a loss of words, has a ready repartee for such criticism: But what about the facts I have quoted

The re-release of three of his books in an expanded form could not have been better timed in terms of their relevance. These are The world of fatwas or the Shariah in action (1995), Worshipping false gods: Ambedkar, and the facts which have been erased (1997), Falling over backwards: An essay on reservations and on judicial populism (2006). Two of these were written in the mid-1990s, but all remain as relevant today as they were at the time of original publication. Its difficult to say which is the best, as this would depend on what one accords primacy to today: backward politics or Islamic fundamentalism or, still, reservations. But my personal favourite is Worshipping false gods, which basically examines BR Ambedkars role during the freedom struggle and in its aftermath. The reason is simple: History moulds current political theories and today each sect or group is looking for historical heroes to gain legitimacy for its ideology. So dont be surprised if two decades hence some grouping of caste, region or religion discovers some eminent from some period of our history and puts him on a pedestal. And lo and behold, everyone who then dares to critically appraise the gentlemans legacy runs the risk of getting their faces blackened as well as getting labelled communalist, Hindu Nazi, obscurantist, et al. None of these labels would be new to Shourie.

The deification of Ambedkar in recent times, and the blackening of faces if anyone dares to criticise him (as experienced by Shourie), almost got a universal acceptance recently when he was voted the greatest Indian after Mahatma Gandhi in a television programme by a news channel. No one should be surprised if Ambedkar outvotes Gandhi. In fact, this has already happened in one way, for one can get away by being critical of Gandhi but not of Ambedkar in these times.

For students of history and political science, the book is a must read. Though they would read about the role of Ambedkar in the national movement in all standard texts, it would never be put in the critical context that Shourie provides by quoting all the original sources at length. However, a word of caution is a must here. Do read the book if you are a university student but dont expect it to be a prescribed reading and never use the perspective gained to write answers in your examinations! What is surprising is that the story of the freedom struggle is well known from the point of view that there were certain luminaries opposed to Gandhis approach of freedom first and settling of domestic issues/differences later. Ambedkar differed with Gandhi because he wanted the British to act as guardians till the time issues of caste etc were settled, because he did not find the Congress to be trustworthy. Despite this well-known fact, historians and scholars have mostly avoided amplifying this aspect of Ambedkar, which was quite pro-British, by not resorting to original sources in the manner Shourie has done.

The work compares well with two of my personal favourites by Shourie. The first I read as an article as a student, about how the communists sabotaged the Quit India Movement. And the second was Shouries eye-opening book, Eminent historians: Their technology, their line, their fraud. Needless to add, the communists and the eminent (read Marxist) historians attacked him in the same manner as a pamphleteer attacked him over Amebdkar, an attack described vividly in the book.

Now coming to Falling over backwards, which is on reservations and judicial populism, I got reminded of my student days in Delhi University when Shourie became our hero by taking a position against the implementation of the recommendations of the Mandal Commission, which were accepted in a controversial decision by the then prime minister VP Singh. At a seminar where Shouries arguments against reservations were contested by Swami Agnivesh, aided by the tale of Dronacharya and Eklavya, Shourie responded: Swamiji is an eloquent speaker. What hes saying is eloquence, not argument! I recall this to underline that the arguments against reservations and some judicial pronouncements have been so well presented in the book that for countering them one would have to resort to eloquence and nothing else. Much like Ambedkar, this too is a subject which can land anybody in soup.

The third book The world of fatwas is the best in terms of scholarship. I mean to say that Ambedkar and reservations are still subjects of contemporary relevance into which one can delve comparatively easily as compared to the subject of fatwas, which requires much more arduous reading of Islamic laws. And Shourie has taken the pains of reading several hundred fatwas. The book can easily be categorised as a one-stop shop for anything one wants to know about Islamic laws and much of the criticism of the work which I have read earlier again relies on rhetoric, rather than countering the facts that Shourie has presented head on. The criticisms generally range from questioning Shouries inability to interpret the laws to laboured arguments calling for appreciating the context.

The only complain one can have against Shourie while reading these three books is on the nature of his narrative, because he quotes from original works at length. But then one can understand the dilemma before him: allegations that quotes are selective and out of context needed to be pre-empted.