The Sangh Parivar’s claims to being the true repository of Indian history and culture become louder every time it wields political power. It announces purging history of all the impurities that colonialism, and the evils that Marxism, had introduced into it. It promises to rewrite history completely and produce nationalist history in all its pristine purity. However, whether during its earlier stint or during campaigns to capture power or now, it has gone wrong on historical facts. Narendra Modi located Taxila and the site of Alexander’s “defeat” in Bihar while campaigning for elections to the Lok Sabha in 2014 while recently a former minister said celebrating Shivaji was necessary to avert the kind of devastation unleashed by Genghis Khan. The minister, of course, assumed that the destroyer bearing the surname Khan was unquestionably Muslim.
The former minister (of education to boot) was clearly unaware that Genghis Khan was not a Muslim and that he was, in fact, a scourge of the Muslim states in the region. His grandson, Hulagu, ransacked Baghdad and destroyed the Abbasid caliphate in 1258. We, in the profession of history, were looking forward to serious academic output that would be an alternative — like K M Munshi’s multi-volume History and Culture of the Indian People or several works of R. C. Majumdar — to the much-maligned and highly overstated “colonialist-Marxist” paradigm. After six years of patronage between 1998 and 2004 and another period of over two years, all we have are outlandish claims that all manner of scientific, technological, surgical and philosophical knowledge originated in India with the Vedas.
Indeed, even this claim has been repeated since decades.
The contributions of ancient India, along with those of many other civilisations, Western and Eastern, Northern and Southern, in the realms of astronomy, mathematics, surgery and philosophy have long been recognised by professional historians around the world. The recent launch of a project by the ICHR to outline the scientific achievements of ancient India is welcome if it adds to the numerous volumes on the theme as well as the respected 50-year-old Indian Journal of the History of Science, published by the Indian National Science Academy. But, by itself, the project is unlikely to shake the earth. There is so little to look up to in the list of alternative history.
Far from a well-researched book, there is not even an article so far to lead us to that promised land of purist history writing and understanding of culture.
There is good reason for this. The discipline has long moved beyond the framework the Parivar is keen on deploying. History driven solely by the ruler’s religious identity was the most significant change colonial historiography effected to the multifaceted explorations of the discipline in ancient and medieval India. Historical time, before that, was unfamiliar with the famous tripartite division of Hindu-Muslim-British periods introduced by James Mill’s in 1818; some decades later, Elliot and Downson, in their massive eight-volume History of India as Told by its Own Historians, reinforced the deadly effect of this scheme. The intent of the effort was never concealed: “To teach the bombastic babus the great relief British rule had brought them from the tyranny of the Muslim rulers” — this was divide and rule in its perfect form.
Post-Independence, Indian historians of all hues, including Marxists, challenged the assumptions of colonial historiography and new perspectives began to evolve. The major departure was to expand the space and scope of history from the rulers and their courts to the ground level — peasants, artisans and later on the “subalterns” as well —in order to give a multi-dimensional focus to history where religious identity, not of the rulers alone, but also of social and political groups counted as one of the dimensions. The rise and fall of dynasties began to get explained, not in terms of the strong or weak ruler phenomenon, but in a complex set of social, economic, ideational and institutional conflicts and symbioses. Themes of history also underwent radical expansion and that continues at a breathtaking pace: The history of gender relations, of ecology, mindscapes embedded in literature, paintings, folklore, history of the notions of time and space, histories of attitudes towards death and life, sexuality, family, notions of masculinity and femininity, history of perceptions of the past, the list is unending and constantly growing.
Such history, written from any perspective, is incapable of being reduced to a model of Hindu-Muslim antagonism driven entirely by the ruler’s religious identity. That is the Sangh Parivar’s problem. Even as it hopes to divide and rule by pitting the gaurakshaks against the beef eaters, the Parivar’s agenda of rewriting history and bringing back the glories of ancient India remains a pipe-dream. It’s not for nothing that there has not been a single book or even an article from its historians that has been under discussion on any platform, right-wing or left- wing, over the past few decades.
Perhaps the Parivar is aware of this and has opted for rewriting history at the school textbooks level where the simplistic colonial, Mill-Elliot-Dowson kind of history can be reproduced for young minds. This also stems from the training at the RSS shakhas where such history is, ironically, passed on as “nationalist” par excellence. This is what Murli Manohar Joshi did as the minister of education in the last BJP-led NDA government. A supplementary strategy is to “rewrite” history at the local-level where the old syncretic legacies can be purged to yield either exclusive images or, more profitably, images of conflict. This can be done — and is being done — without drawing much attention, although there has been no shortage of resources, as well as patronage, for the endeavour. There is help from the “left-liberal” historians too for this: Their nearly exclusive preoccupation with grand entities, whether empires or peasant uprisings or grand “transitions” and neglect of regional, especially local history has left space for those who have their sights set on it.
The author was professor of history at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi