History as Storytelling
October 28, 2019
Image courtesy: Newsclick
There is one thing unique about the present dispensation holding reins of power at the Centre. What one witnesses that the cabinet ministers—who go by the principle of collective responsibility—follow the dictum in letter and spirit. Thus, it is not considered unusual when a minister holding X portfolio shares their opinion about an urgent issue before Y ministry and vice versa. This process has been so normalised that when recently Home Minister Amit Shah, who according to his followers is the new 'Iron Man' of India—thanks to the abrogation of Article 370—shared his views on need for 'rewriting history’, no eyebrows were raised.
No commentator even asked why the home minister—a graduate in bio-chemistry who has also worked as a stockbroker and in co-operative banks [Sheela Bhatt, "What Amit Shah's fall really means", July 28, 2010]—was found the most apt person to inaugurate a two-day seminar on a subject of history at Banaras Hindu University where he shared his pearls of wisdom. His emphasis was that Indian historians should “rewrite history from an Indian perspective”. The focus of the seminar was on Skandagupta Vikramaditya, the fifth-century AD emperor.
Interestingly, it appeared a bit strange that, while talking about 'rewriting history' or sharing his utter disdain for 'leftist' history or presenting Hindu Rashtra proponent Vinayak Damodar Savarkar as an exemplar before scholars, Amit Shah exhibited complete amnesia about earlier attempts in this direction.
Was the silence so inadvertent?
Remember, it has been more than two decades since the first Bharatiya Janata Party-led government assumed reins of power at the Centre when Prof Murli Manohar Joshi handled the Human Resources Development portfolio. He sort of pioneered the attempts to 'Indianise' history. Taking a cue from the then Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh Supremo KS Sudarshan's exhortation about weeding out “anti-Hindu Euro-Indians” from the curriculum, feverish attempts then gained momentum to remake educational curriculum in Hindutva's own exclusivist image. Stalling of the Indian Council of Historical Research project 'Towards Freedom' in 1999, which was edited by noted scholars like Sumit Sarkar and K N Panikkar—as it contained enough documentary evidence about RSS and Hindu Mahasabha's compromising role during anti-colonial struggle—happened to be a significant moment of this ‘Indianisation’.
One can recall how in the year 2001, the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) decided to delete passages from prescribed textbooks on the ground that they allegedly hurt the sentiments of this or that religious sect or community. A delegation had met Joshi and had demanded that the editors of these textbooks—all of them renowned scholars of the subject—namely Professors Romila Thapar, R S Sharma and others should be put behind bars, and Joshi had no qualms in admitting that ‘academic terrorists’ are more dangerous than armed ones.
The focus of this 'rewriting' was basically to "[p]rove that Hindu culture was autochthonous to India and that since its origins were connected with the Aryans, the Aryans, too were indigenous to the subcontinent: that the Vedas were composed around 9,000 BCE and the Mahabharata battles were fought in 2,000 BCE, and so on." (The Making of India : Political History, Routledge, p. 334). New courses such as Vedic Mathematics and Vedic Astrology were also introduced to project greater glory of Hinduism.
The net effect of this project of 'Indianising' education was definitely not very encouraging. By the brute use of state power, it could stop few publications financed by the University Grants Commission or was 'successful' in deleting passages here and there, appoint its own 'scholars' at various posts, etc.
What the saffrons, however, had not expected was that their haphazard efforts would invite criticism from their own members as well.
Prof M L Sondhi, who was a former member of the BJP's national executive committee and headed the Indian Council of Social Science Research, had then strongly criticised his own government’s approach towards education. He had said that the country's premier research bodies were being coerced into “radically changing their courses” or “forced into intellectual obscurantism”.
As expected, BJP's move did galvanise not only historians but scholars of other social science disciplines too. Perhaps, it was a reflection of this broad-based unity among scholars and teachers that, with the BJP-led government's exit from the levers of power in the 2004 and UPA's taking hold of its reins, one of its key agenda in the field of education became 'detoxifying' it.
With the return to power of the BJP in the year 2014, the country was subjected to the second edition of this 'rewriting' history.
One could say that Prime Minister Modi himself initiated this trend in a rather unique way by delivering a speech which was a cocktail of mythology and history. The occasion was the inauguration of a hospital started by Ambani foundation. He told the doctors gathered there that “many discoveries of modern science and technology were known to the people of ancient India.” The mythological figure Karna and the Hindu god, Ganesha, Modi had said, were creations of cosmetic surgery and reproductive genetics “used thousands of years ago”.
The appointment of Prof Y Sudershan Rao, at Kakatiya University, as Chairman of the prestigious Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) could be underlined as a major step taken by the first Modi government at the Centre for its project of rewriting history. Unfamiliar to most historians, wirh little visibility of his research, Prof Rao's appointment had raised quite a furore among academics.
What had prompted his appointment to the top post who had at 'best published popular articles on the historicity of the Indian epics but not in any peer-reviewed journal' was his long association with with the Bharatiya Itihasa Sankalan Samithi (BISS) founded by P N Oak, a soldier and a writer (1917-2007) who can be described as a fringe Hindu-centric historical negationist. Oak maintained that modern secular and Marxist historians have fabricated "idealised versions" of India's past and drained it of its "Vedic context and content". And he went on propagating his ideas writing articles, publishing books and also initiating the work of 'collecting local history' by forming BISS, which also used to bring out a journal in the 1980s.
While Oak's weird theories like ‘Christianity and Islam being both derivatives of Hinduism’ or ‘Like Taj Mahal, Catholic Vatican, Kaaba, Westminster Abbey were once Hindu temples to Shiva’ or ‘Vatican being originally a Vedic creation called Vatika and that the Papacy was also originally a Vedic Priesthood’ or his complete denial of Islamic architecture in India could not find any takers in the mainstream and in fact were rejected in academia, they gathered a popular following in the Hindu Right which is still in search of a grand theory to further its agenda. It should also be noted that Oak had even petitioned the Supreme Court to rewrite the history of Taj Mahal as being built by a Hindu King during NDA’s first stint of power at the Centre. Perhaps, the then conducive political atmosphere might have prompted him to gain further legitimacy but he was sadly mistaken. A two-member division bench of the Supreme Court dismissed the ‘misconceived’ petition with these remarks ‘Somebody has a bee in his bonnet, hence this petition’.
Any individual can spot the weirdness of Oak's theories but a cursory glance at Modi’s first regime makes it evident how various leaders of the saffron party echoed Oak's 'theories' on different occasions underlining the respect he still enjoys among them.
As one can see, like their top leaders who mix mythology and history with ease, it is rather difficult to communicate to a saffron activist on the ground that history writing is different from storytelling. With the use of state power, they can as well ask a school board to make changes in history to suit one's ego or community, but truth based on available resources would continue to haunt them. For example, merely two years back, the Rajasthan Board of Secondary Education approved a change in the history section of Class X social science books about Maharana Pratap's conclusive victory over Akbar in the Battle of Haldighati. It is a different matter that all available sources tell us that Mughals were the victors.
Mr Amit Shah fails to understand that one has to have an understanding of historiography which is basically developing a method to discern the past. In the absence of any such theory, what can happen is that anyone can box in such grand theories.
James Mill wrote History of British India almost 200 years back, wherein he periodised Indian history into three periods – Hindu civilisation, Muslim civilisation and the British period. These were accepted largely without question and we have lived with this periodisation for the whole period. As mentioned by this author before, "In the Hindutva version this periodisation remains, only the colours have changed: the Hindu period is the golden age, the Muslim period the black, dark age of tyranny and oppression, and the colonial period is a grey age almost of marginal importance compared to the earlier two."
Is Hindutva fine with this association?
First published in Newsclick.
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