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Home > History Writing at Risk > India: Faking history starts online | Manimugdha S Sharma

India: Faking history starts online | Manimugdha S Sharma

20 November

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The Times of India, November 19, 2017

by Manimugdha S Sharma

A social media corps looks to win ancient battles with hearsay, hoaxes and pure fantasy

Last week, as Karnataka observed Tipu Sultan Jayanti, the social media universe exploded with right-wing rage. A photograph with the tag ’the real Tipu Sultan’ was circulated on Twitter and Facebook, accompanied by vitriolic comments.

In fact, the photo was of a Zanzibari slave trader named Tippu Tip who lived between the 19th and 20th centuries. Nobody bothered to pause and consider whether photography was available in the 18th century. This refusal to think is what the thriving factory of fake history exploits, and is the reason it has been so successful at polarising opinion.

This fake history factory found many gullible victims. WhatsApp forwards are taken as truth, and Twitter and Facebook have become windows to an alternative universe where truth is irrelevant. These biased echo chambers now have wider effects — Prime Minister Modi had sent Bhagat Singh to the Andamans in a 2014 campaign speech, while Modi’s rivals had recently, and wrongly, claimed that the train station where he supposedly sold tea didn’t come up until the 1970s.

This is just a glimpse of how minds are misguided at top levels of politics. At the ground level, skulduggery in the name of "real history" is now rampant. Many anonymous Twitter handles regularly peddle falsehoods with the help of photo-editing tools. These then go viral as verified handles, even celebrities, retweet them, either because they are genuinely taken in, or because they suffer from heavy confirmation bias.

One such anonymous handle is TrueIndology, which, according to Pratik Sinha of AltNews, is a "serial faker". AltNews had busted the propaganda of this handle in a series of articles earlier this year. TrueIndology has over 58,000 followers, and most of its tweets stick to the now standard right-wing template — show Muslims in poor light, glorify Hindus, abuse lefties and liberals — and if you can’t find facts, just fake it.

In one instance, this handle tweeted out a photo of 1984 anti-Sikh riots at Chandni Chowk and said it was a photo of Congress workers burning down houses of Brahmins after Gandhi’s assassination in 1948. In another, it tweeted a photo of a nomadic settlement in Afghanistan and declared it the original architecture of the Mughals before they came to India — a regurgitation of the old Hindu nationalist fantasy that all Mughal buildings were originally Hindu temples and palaces.

On Facebook, we found one community named ’Indian History — Real Truth’ with over 66,000 members. TrueIndology’s exploits pale in front of the vitriol to be found there. Recently, one of the moderators posted a highly objectionable post on Maulana Azad, questioning his parentage on his birth anniversary. A group administrator declared that "Indian women were degraded after arrival of mlechhas (read Muslims) in the Indian subcontinent". No proof of this "degradation" was given, though. There were claims about the Mughals not building anything in their homeland. One such claim was questioned by a user who said Samarqand, Iran etc have more beautiful buildings than what the Mughals built. The original poster offered a straightforward explanation: "These are Aryan Vedic lands."

Another Facebook page called ’Indian History — the Real Truth’ takes history to another level of fantasy. With over 26,000 followers, this one regularly abuses "Left-leaned (sic)" historians for faking the truth — and claims that some temple spires are proof of ancient aliens visiting our planet 6,000 years ago, that Hindus fired the first rocket 1,200 years ago from a temple, that Hindu astronomy and texts are 1,20,000 years old. In fact, the term used for India’s most celebrated historians is "criminal historians", and appeals are made to file cases of sedition against them for "subverting the truth".

"This is a standard tactic: bombard people with rhetoric and repeat it till it’s taken as fact. Since the average internet user cannot verify facts by reading a textbook or asking a historian, he only has Google to turn to. These fake history pages often come up on the first page itself during searches, not academic links. So, people pick up what’s easily available," says Pratik Sinha.

The social media noise, as it turns out, serves a purpose for those in power. Demands for changing academic syllabi or renaming a road are first made on social media before being acted upon. "All this faking of history is part of a larger right-wing project to shape the national narrative. They cannot change much of what’s written in textbooks without catching undue attention, both here and abroad. So, these changes are being made more subtly. But they know they can create noise and people won’t bother to find out what recorded history says," says Sinha.

Many dubious stories also find expression in mainstream media. A new TV series trailer, for instance, shows Alexander of Macedon sailing in ships and Porus waiting for him on the other side. It also shows Porus running faster than an arrow to stop it from hitting a pigeon and declaring with jingoistic pride, "This is Porus’ India. No one can take away even a bird’s feather from here." In the fake history circles, Porus has been a victor of the Battle of Hydaspes for long. Now, Rana Pratap has joined that list by defeating Akbar at Haldighati. It needs to be seen how many more ancient victories can be delivered by modern fake history.

But historians are worried about this development. "Serious history arrives at conclusions after a long conversation between the historian and his sources. The subject is philosophical and deeply hermeneutical and must not be abused in our haste to score ideological brownie points. History, like all knowledge, is a debate between perspectives — some wise, some unwise," says Professor Anirudh Deshpande of Delhi University.

P.S.

The above article from The Times of India is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use