On 16 October 1921, at 8:34 pm, in the Haryana village of Chhara, Sita Ram Goel was born. Though belonging to the merchant Agarwal caste, his family was quite poor but found sustenance in Vaishnavism and especially the devotional poetry of the local 18th-century Sant Garib Das. Possibly this is what made him such a friendly and generous man, always attentive to the needs of others. When growing up, he came under the influence of Arya Samaj reformism and of Mahatma Gandhi. During his student days he was a Gandhian activist. He obtained an MA in History from Hindu College, Delhi University.
In the last years of the freedom struggle, he became friends with a group of young intellectuals with a great future, from Times of India editor Girilal Jain and philosophy author Daya Krishna to Planning Commission member Raj Krishna and arts tsarina Kapila Vatsyayana. But the most important and lasting influence was economics graduate Ram Swarup (whose centenary we celebrated last year), who in 1944-47 led the debating forum Changers' Club. Though they were "progressives" at the time, we find in their pamphlets already some themes that would become prominent in Goelji's writing career.
In 1948, Goel had almost become a Communist Party member, but under the influence of Ram Swarup and of reading the communist classics, he swiftly evolved into an articulate anti-communist. In Kolkata he set up the Society for the Defence of Freedom in Asia, which during the 1950s was the leading anti-communist think tank in the Third World. It published a series of factual studies about the atrocities and the dismal socio-economic performance of the Soviet Union and the People's Republic, much appreciated (but, to lay a nasty rumour to rest, never financed) by prominent foreign anti-communists and by Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Chiang Kai-shek.
Meanwhile, he rediscovered Hindu-Buddhist spirituality and also found the time to write several historical novels in Hindi, as well as preparing Hindi translations of classic works of philosophy and history.
In 1957, he stood as an independent candidate on the Jana Sangh (later BJP) ticket for the Lok Sabha elections in the Khajuraho constituency. This was an arrangement with Chakravarti Rajagopalachari's budding anti-Communist Swatantra Party, India's main opposition party in the 1960s. It had wanted Goel in Parliament because he had the mettle to stand up to then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, but the election gods were not favourable.
In 1961, Goel published a series of articles critical of Nehru in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh weekly Organiser. It was discontinued on orders of the RSS high command, which feared a backlash against the RSS if anything were to happen to Nehru, as had been the case after Mahatma Gandhi's murder. It was not the last time he got disappointed in the Sangh Parivar.
In the 1960s and '70s he left the political struggle behind to build up his own publishing business. But after retiring, in 1981 he started writing several series of articles in Organiser and its Hindi counterpart Panchjanya. These were then published as booklets by a new publishing outfit he created, first of all as a conduit for Ram Swarup's books, but also for his own ideological writings: Voice of India.
He opened the very first one, Hindu Society under Siege, with an analysis that said it all: "Hindu society is the only significant society in the world today which presents a continuity of cultural existence since time immemorial. Most other societies have undergone a traumatic transformation due to the invasion and victory of latter-day ideologies " Christianity, Islam, Communism. Hindu culture can meet the same frightful fate if there were no Hindu society to sustain it. This great society is now besieged by the same dark and deadly forces. And its beneficiaries no more seem interested in its survival because they have fallen victims to hostile propaganda. They have developed towards it an attitude of utter indifference, if not downright contempt. Hindu society is in mortal danger as never before."
Or in his Defence of Hindu Society (1983): "Hindus have become devoid of self-confidence because they have ceased to take legitimate, well-informed and conscious pride in their spiritual, cultural and social heritage. The sworn enemies of Hindu society have taken advantage of this enervation of the Hindus."
This outlines a task that would determine the remainder of Ram Swarup's and Sita Ram Goel's writings: Detailing the history and ideological motivation of Hinduism's enemies, and showing the contrast with what Hinduism has to offer. This work is fascinating through its combination of fearless analysis of unpleasant questions with a passion for the benefits of ancient dharma and of the contemporary real-life Hindus. It takes up the ideological struggle so as to avoid the physical struggle, and is thus humane par excellence. As Goel's son Pradeep said after Goel's passing in 2003: "They won our hearts with their minds."
Goel himself would soon become a victim of this Hindu loss of nerve. In 1985, the RSS leadership again intervened to have his article series in their papers banned. This time it was Islam that they wanted to spare. Not because they feared a terrorist attack in revenge (they already had an anti-Muslim reputation), but because any Islam-critical writing might "keep Muslims from coming to us". At the time, the Sangh Parivar still clamoured against "minority appeasement" in public, but in private the rot had already set in.
Goel's best-known work will remain his two-volume Hindu Temples: What Happened to Them? (1990-91). In it, he gives a very incomplete but already impressive list of nearly 2,000 forcible displacements of temples by mosques, of which not one has been challenged since. But its most important part is the summary and analysis of the theological justification of this centuries-spanning (and continents-spanning, think of Istanbul's Aya Sophia or even Mecca's Kaaba) record of iconoclasm. This was the key to understanding the Ayodhya controversy, but remark that in the Ayodhya campaign and its judicial proceedings before the UP High Court, it was kept out of view: The RSS-BJP campaigners preferred superficial emotions about the temple to a serious understanding of the theological background.
Today, Sita Ram Goel's work is without influence on government policy. Thus, his critique of the many falsehoods in the Nehruvian history textbooks have not made Narendra Modi's Cabinet take up the need of correcting them. But his influence on the new crop of online Hindu media is profound. This outreach to the Hindu mind and to a new generation is an important step, but a civilisation under siege can ill afford to leave it at that.
The writer is a well-known Indologist from Belgium. Views expressed are personal.