Arun Shourie: Indian Controversies

Annotated Extracts: A bias in translation?

Amitabha Mukerjee

This is a review of the book: Arun Shourie, Indian Controversies, Essays in Religion and Politics, ASA Publications, New Delhi-110021, Rs. 150 softcover


Arun Shourie's writing is unrestrained in its detail, overwhelming in its erudition, inflammatory in its invective; but most importantly it is interesting. The contrast with typical secularly "correct" writing is stark. Where the latter descends into one-sided panegyric Shourie lashes out with unsparing factual detail. Of course there were many masjids that were constructed on top of old temples, evidence is presented from but that does not mean that a mob can bring it down. Ancient religious norms may put down their rules about widows, but Shah Bano's civil rights as a citizen of a secular state were certainly violated. The Sikhs were allowed to flourish into criminal activity under the guise of the same secularism. At the same time, Roop Kanwar's sati and similar forces must also be condemned in the same spirit. The tenor is clear in the second sentence of the introduction: "For three decades after [independence] religion was used most ... effectively by the secularists - not those ... who were secular but those who appropriated the label."

These writings have much relevance in today's troubled atmosphere. In a postscript written after Babri Masjid, he makes a dire case against our failure to say the truth, even when it is bitter:

In the end a mob took the law in its own hands. So that this may not become the pattern, all of us must redouble efforts to get the institutions working again. Otherwise there will be mobs of many kinds, and nothing will survive.
Some, written before the Masjid demolition, are even prescient:
The attention which normal pleading could not have ever persuaded the courts and Government to pay the matter for twenty years, dhakka has persuaded them to pay in just two weeks. That is not a lesson to which anyone would be driven. But the courts and the rulers are the ones who have driven that lesson home.

If there is a theme that runs through these essays, it is the repeated attack against "counterfeit" secularism.:

How things have changed in the last fifty years. During the freedom struggle, if you looked upon a Muslim as being someone apart, as being someone other than just a human being like yourself, the 'progressive' was bound to brand you 'communal.' Today unless you look upon the Muslim as separate, that is unless you see him as a Muslim rather than as just a human being like yourself, the 'progressive' brands you 'communal.' Fifty years ago when a Hindi scholar by his deep study perceived and wrote about The Essential Unity of All Religions - the title of Bhagwan Das' famous work - that was looked upon as humanist scholarship at its best. Today when a scholar points to the identity of what is taught in the Granth Sahib and what is taught in, say, the Hindu Bhakti tradition, it is taken as proof positive of a deep conspiracy to swallow Sikhism.

This attack leads to rigorously documented instances where Hindu majority opinion has been discriminated against:

And there are double standards. It is progressive to demand that the Government appoint trustees to manage the Vishwanath, Tirupati, Nathdwara, Guruvayur temples. But it is communal to demand that it do so in the case of a Gurdwara, even when the SGPC has run away from its responsibility under the law. It is progressive to denounce, say, the RSS for holding shakhas. But it is communal to do so much as draw attention to the fact that the official budget of the SGPC - a body consitituted under our secular laws, elections to which are held under the supervision of (and at the expenses of) our secular Government - has 'training in arms' as one of the heads of expenditure.

Most of the rhetoric is aimed at the "concessions" that were accorded to the minority religions, particularly the Muslims. The thesis is that most of these concessions violate the spirit of secularism, and what is worse, they do not help the lay person within the minority community.

In writing of this kind, one treads a fine line between partisan rhetoric and objective fact. How well has Arun Shourie succeeded in this? In my opinion, he has not succeeded too well, for much of the writing appears to bear a distinctly partisan emphasis. At the same time, the very fact that a leading intellectual has investigated these issues at such depth is to be lauded, and we thank Mr. Shourie for having brought to our notice the many facts and details that are missing in the common "secular" discourse.


The concept of secularism evolved as a conflict between church and state in the west. Much of it has had a tendency to denigrate the older religions. This has kept us from digging for reality, it has caused us to escape our identity, our traditions.
The western educated Indian has merely internalized the sophisticated, indeed subversive slander of Western scholars about his texts, beliefs, practices. Much of this scholarship was associated with - much of it directly arose from - the need to justify the notion that the East has to be 'civilized'; by missionary activity, by imperial conquest... we have internalized three notions from it: that by and large our tradition is pessimistic, it is life-denying; that our present condition ... originates in this tradition; finally, that we are not one stream but an artificial geographical construct, that the Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, etc, are inherently irreconcilably separate.

Actually, the problem is not with the concept of secularism, but with its implementation.

Our laws do not discriminate between individuals on grounds of religion. These are the corner-stones of a secular state. But in view of recent events, the state must be scrupulously fair. It must also be absolutely firm. When, confronted by a Bhindranwale, it flounders, it breeds terrorists. In the same way, when following the massacre of 2700 sikhs in the capital, it does not bring the guilty to book, it breeds terrorists.

... Furthermore, given the authority `religious' leaders claim for themselves on `religious' matters, we must circumscribe the ambit of what is religious matter, limiting it to purely self-regarding actions, and even among those to actions of a spiritual kind. `But that was our personal fight,' a leader of the extremists in Punjab said in talking about the Bhindranwale-Nirankari killings. `Why did he [a journalist], why did the Government step in?' But killing others, even if it be from purely religious zeal, is not a self-regarding action.

The effect of pampering to these religious leaders is insidious - they often deny the majority much of their dues in the interests of preserving their own position.

Concessions that are made ostensibly to the group are gobbled up by the better-off, the better-organized within the group. these sections become the brokers. Their power in turn rests on the fact that the State deals with the group only through them. ... Thinking in terms of groups rather than individuals perpetuates the tyranny of the leaders of the group on its members - of the Syedna on the Bohras... of Muslim men on Muslim women, of landowning Thakurs on landless Harijans. Indeed it gives the oppressing leaders and sections a shield. The moment anyone from outside the group speaks on behalf of the oppressed, he is denounced for interfering in the 'internal affairs' of the group... The principal losers are the members of the group itself.


The central thesis of much of his argument on religion is that the religious texts, supposedly handed down directly from God, are full of self-contradictions and contemporaneous misconceptions. As a result most modern interpretations do not accept the words of God as being "literal" any more. The secular attitude to all texts "can only be" that a) each book is man-made, b) each book has much that is of value, and also much that is not, c) anyone has the right to study and interpret each book, and d) our surest guide in religious matters is direct experience and not the diktat of some intermediary.
Because of the nature of the Hindu tradition, because of the special position that the mystic - to whom books are nothing, and direct perception everything - has had in it ... - these propositions are well accepted in relation to the Hindu texts. The humanist and secularist must extend them to other texts too. It is only when we acquire this freedom in relation to a Book that we can benefit from it.

As an example of self-contradictions in religious texts, Mr. Shourie cites several known instances from the Bible; even a fact as central as the last supper or the resurrection are contradicted:

On Matthew's reckoning David is followed seriatim by twenty-five heirs - whom he lists - before we get to Joseph. On Luke's by forty. And apart from the first and the last names in the series, i.e. David and Joseph, our authors have not one name in common. ... In Mark and Luke, Jesus tells the disciples in a general way that one of them will betray him, one who is at the table with him, who is eating with him (Mark 14.17-21). In Matthew he is a bit more specific but not entirely so: when Judas asks him, 'Is it I Master?' Jesus answers, 'You have said so.' (Luke, 26.25). But in John, Jesus identifies Judas clearly and specifically (John 14.21-6) ... In Matthew (27.32), Mark (15.21) and Luke (23.26), Simon of Cyrene is compelled to carry the cross on which Jesus is to be crucified. In John (19.17) Jesus is made to carry it himself.

"Matthew (27.46-50) and Mark (15.33-08) both report Jesus as crying out in a loud voice, 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?' And after crying out once again, breathing his last. These words do not occur in Luke and John at all. ... Instead Luke reports Jesus as saying first, 'Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.' [After some interaction with the thieves on either side] Luke (23.44-54) reports Jesus as crying out in a loud voice ... 'Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit." And with this he breathes his last. In John, [he speaks to Mary and a disciple, and then] he says, 'It is finished,' bows his head and gives up the spirit.

While the Bible is definitely unclear about many such important points, the Quran, in its reference to Jesus, denies two important facts: that he was the son of God, and that he was crucified. The devout Christian and devout Muslim are unlikely to be convinced by each others arguments on either point.

Are the `reasons' of the Quran as much as the Bible not something else altogether? The Bible must affirm that Jesus is the Son of God so as to exalt him to his unique position. For exactly the same reason, the Quran must insist that he was not the Son of God, for the same reason it must deny the central event of Christian martyrology, namely, that Christ was crucified. If it accepts these affirmations it cannot create for Mohammed the unique position it must, if it is to found an entire religion on the latter.
Thus, believing in each others "God-given" texts can lead to no compromise, let alone any understanding.


... The fundamentalists are right: in asking the husband of the 70-year-old Shah Bano to pay her a maintenance allowance, the Supreme Court has gone contrary to Muslim personal law. But that is a reason not for reversing the verdict: it is a reason for re-examining Muslim personal law in the light of modern, secular principles. p.200

With this Shourie launches into a typically detailed investigation of the origins of Muslim law. It is derived from four sources: The Quran, the sunna (practice of the prophet as described in the hadis); Ijma, that is, consensus (among whom? this question remains unsettled); and qiyas, that is, reasoning by analogy.

In the second category, Six hadis are regards as canonical. Shourie goes into depth into the two major ones - Sahih al-Bukhari, and Sahih Muslim. In Muslim law, the hadis are treated as the equal of the Quran. The Ijma, on the other hand, was originally very active, leading to nineteen schools of law, and then to four. However, it also left the door open to disputations, to dangerous free-thinking. Thus, over the centuries, Ijma was narrowed down to mean not the consensus of the community, but of the jurists, and finally that of the mujtahids, those that strive, and then to established traditions not amenable to any form of consensus today. A similar notion, Ijtihad (the right to interpretation) gave way to taqlid, the practice of abiding literally to the interpretations of the learned and the Qazis.

The contradictions and ambiguities in Muslim law are examoined in detail, including a large section on the rules of interest. The letter of the Quran prohibits interest, yet this was flagrantly flouted in the spirit; in the practice of double sale for instance (baytan fi bay's) where I sell you a slave for X and you sell him back to me for X+ some amount, a transaction known as mukhatara or ina. The form of punishment also goes in for detailed analysis, including the famous lines, which originally appear in the bible:

A life for a life, an eye for an eye,
a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear,
a tooth for a tooth, and for wound
retaliation; (Quran 5.49)

which is cited along with several others in this vein (Whoso commits aggression against you, do you commit aggression against him, 2.190), to illustrate the point that following these injunctions would be contrary to the principles of criminal law.


The argument to which all this discussion leads is for the doing away of Muslim Personal Law in all civil matters: this will establish a uniform civil code in the traditions of true secularism. Examples are cited of many Islamic countries that are now making changes in the Muslim law. Finally, he addresses the criticism that he, as a Hindu, has no right to criticize the internal operations of Islam. Should other religions speak up when it comes to the religious matters of a different faith? Shourie's answer is a resounding "Yes," backed up with conviction. Elsewhere, encountering the Muslim argument that "We haven't interfered in your sati," he enjoins them that they have not helped by ignoring this act of "murder", which is as much a Muslim matter as it is Hindu, and until we can accept this distinction between State and Religion, we have no hopes of becoming a secular nation.

It is interesting to note here that the traditions of law in Islam predate that of the West in both extent and in sophistication. However, whereas Western jurisprudence has been a dynamic tradition, Islamic Shariyaat law has been frozen, with extremely little scope for modification. The following claims are made by the most rigid Islamic conservatives (based on a treatise on the Shariyat Law and its relation to European laws; written by a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood of pre-Nasser Egypt):

The laws of the Shariyat can be amended only in two conditions: when the new rules are needed purely to implement existing laws, and when new rules are necessary because of changing times, but even this second category must be in complete agreement with the Shariyat.

To return to the main argument of Arun Shourie - the necessity of an uniform civil code - one cannot but agree wholeheartedly. This is perhaps one of the crying needs of the hour, yet one will have to tread softly and sell the people on the idea first. The roots of this problem lie within our laws, and ultimately, in our constitution and our very form of government. We did not arrive at this government structure through a process of some internal evolution, but we borrowed it entirely from the democratic traditions of Europe. A similar theme echoes through the brilliant analysis by Octavio Paz, Labyrinths of Solitude. The following passage, about Mexico, would apply equally well here, except that we are perhaps even further behind in our stage of national evolution:

Sometimes form chokes us... the liberals tried vainly to force the realities of the country into the straitjacket of the constitution of 1857. The results were the dictatorship of Porforio Diaz and the Revolution of 1910. In a certain sense the history of Mexico, like that of every Mexican, is a struggle between the forms and formulas that have been imposed on us and the explosions with which our individuality avenges itself. Form has rarely been an original creation, an equilibrium arrived at through our instincts and desires rather than at their expense. On the contrary, our moral and juridical forms often conflict with our nature, preventing us from expressing ourselves and frustrating our true wishes.

In India as well, we have lost the thread of continuity so critical to our identity in our headlong transition from feudal past into democratic present. It is this loss of identity, more than anything else, that has led to our inability to face reality, and our feeble attempts at a toothless secularism and a spiritless democracy.


A number of sections in the book contain arguments that are weak, and are bolstered by evidence that is controversial. One of these is the discussion on Jihad. It is here that we find traces of injudicious quotation, mainly as a result of differences over translation, that could possibly be cited as evidence of bias. Early in the Quran, when the nascent Islam is beset with difficulties, we find:

O unbelievers,
I serve not what you serve,
and you are not serving what I serve...
To you your religion, and to me my religion! ( Quran 109.1)

Or, as in 2.256 'Let there be no compulsion in religion'. Yet later, the same voice turns bloodthirsty:

'If they withdraw not from you, and
offer you peace, and restrain their hands,
take them and slay them wherever you come on them;
against them We have given you a clear authority (4.93)


When you encounter the infidels,
strike off their heads till ye have made
a great slaughter among them, and
of the rest made fast the fetters.
And afterwards let there either be free dismissals or ransomings,
till the war hath laid down its burdens. (47.4-5)

The sunnas and the hadis are equally evocative in their support of the notion of Jihad, which is deemed by Shourie to be the "leitmotiv of the Quran." p.229-234. However, current historical research is unanimous that the notion of Jihad emerged much after the Quran, during the phase of religious conflict, particularly during the Crusades. At the same time, if there is a leitmotiv that runs through the Quran, it is undoubtedly the unity of Allah, followed by the exhortation to give alms to the poor, a notion that is repeated times without number.


Arun Shourie's basic point is well taken: study everything in detail, in its entirety, and from the original, uncommented text. Then, decide whether or not the items discovered satisfy secular action or "non-communal non-interference."

To follow up on this advice, I looked up the original source, the Quran. It was immediately obvious that the translation used by Shourie was uncharitable at the very least. Whereas the two other standard translations I found were largely in agreement, the words used in the above quotations were often often liable to misinterpretations. The last few lines (47.4) for instance, consider the word "encounter," which can mean just a meeting, or it can mean an ongoing conflict. The translation by Ahmed Ali (Oxford University Press, 1984, Rs. 180), puts the same Sura thus:

When you clash with the unbelievers,
strike their necks until you overpower them,
then hold them in bondage.
Then either free them graciously
or after taking a ransom.

and the translation by N.J. Dawood (Penguin, 1956) has:

When you meet the unbelievers in the battlefield strike off their heads and, when you have laid them low, bind your captives firmly. Then grant them their freedom or take ransom from them.

In the translation quoted by Shourie, the sense of "great slaughter" is emphasized though it seems much tamer in the other translations:

Free dismissals or ransomings, are thus allowed, but after `a great slaughter' has been made among them. `It is not fair for any prophet,' Allah reiterates, `to have prisoners until he makes a wide slaughter in the land (8.67)' - p.234

Yet, this phrase also appears much more benign in other translations - "... until he has subdued the whole country," writes Ali, whereas Dawood puts it as "... until he has triumphed in the land." It strikes one as odd that Shourie does not provide the translation that he used, which he must have since elsewhere he denies knowledge of Arabic. (NOTE: In a personal message against this review, Shourie did provide a list of his sources, but still it is surprising how they are missing in the text itself.)


In other sections of the book, he takes on the legal history of banning a book on religious grounds; the manipulative and power-hungry character of Jinnah ("The pistol Jinnah forged"); a hatchet job on Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, who is typically depicted as a westernized Islamic reformer by biographers (including Rajmohan Gandhi). In this last article, some of the arguments are particularly tenuous, and one wonders why such shrill logic would be needed if indeed the case were so strong. In another article, he describes the difficulty of locating a particular text that was commended by a noted scholar some 15 years back, and launches on a conspiracy theory based entirely on hearsay. The contents, however, are explosive - there is a list of mosques built by tearing down Hindu temples as compiled by a noted muslim scholar (the list includes Jama Masjid, Babri Masjid, Qanauj, Benares, Jaunpur, Mathura, etc.) This list is quoted to emphasize the point, stressed elsewhere, that the masjids were of course built on temples. What is true is true. An ostrich like obsession from facing the truth is not going to make it go away; it will return with a vengeance. Better face it right away and come up with the correct decisions now rather than later. But what kinds of decisions can be taken? What are the solution to this Pandora's Box that Mr. Shourie has thrown open? One is left with no guidance.

What we need, if we accept Arun Shouries cogently argued thesis, is less bowdlerization, and more direct-from-the-texts-interpretation, be it in the fields of law, religion, politics, or history. It leaves one wishing merely for more time, for ars longa, and vita brevis.