“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” George Orwell in his renowned book, 1984, successfully managed to capture a powerful force within this statement. This powerful force is nonetheless the force of history. History has always been powerful, for it has established and destroyed communities, regimes and nation-states. It is this knowledge of history that determines our knowledge of the structure that we belong to and where we stand in this structure. Just like a coin has two sides to it, so does history. But little do we find both the sides making themselves visible, and this leaves us with only half a history- cooked, distorted and disrupted. This concoction of history is credited to political and ideological forces that in a desperate attempt to advance their mobilisation goals take over the discourse of history and impose one uniform historical narrative on the whole of the society.
POLITICS OF REWRITING HISTORY
The emergence of a strong Hindu ideological force that has been boosted by the election of Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) at the centre, is in no doubt being watched with an alarm. Equally guilty for distortion of history like the right is the reductionist attempt of recording Indian history by leftist historians.
In a public statement issued by a group of concerned Indian historians, archaeologists, and scholars of Indian civilization in November 2015, the leftist historians have been accused of being inherently hypocritical and condescending towards any other view of history. The statement lashes out against the leftist historians for refusing “to acknowledge the well-documented darker chapters of Indian history, in particular, the brutality of many Muslim rulers and their numerous Buddhist, Jain, Hindu and occasionally Christian and Muslim victims” (Statement on Hypocrisy and Indian History). The Leftist school has severely neglected tribal histories and “has hardly allowed space to India’s tribal communities and the rich contributions of their tribal belief systems and heritage” (Statement on Hypocrisy and Indian History). It has dismissed dissenting Indian historians as “Nationalist” or “communal” without academically critiquing them. Because of this, many academics have suffered discrimination and loss of professional opportunities. The statement asserted, “In effect, the Leftist School succeeded in projecting itself as the one and only, crushing debate and dissent and polarizing the academic community” (Statement on Hypocrisy and Indian History).
Dipesh Chakrabarty in “Radical Histories and Question of Enlightenment Rationalism: Some Recent Critiques of "Subaltern Studies" writes, “My contention is that scientific rationalism or the spirit of scientific enquiry, was introduced into colonial India from the very beginning as an antidote to (Indian)religion, particularly Hinduism, which was seen, both by missionaries as well as by administrators – and in spite of the Orientalists – as a bundle of ‘superstition’ and ‘magic’ ” (Chakrabarty). Such is the travesty of history in the hands of historians who owe their loyalty to an ideology.
The writing of Indian history has come to be largely seen as various versions of the answer to the question – “Whose documentation of history is correct – the left or the right?” William Dalrymple in his article titled, “India: The War Over History” writes that the roots of the current conflict can be traced back to two rival conceptions of Indian history that began to diverge in the 1930’s, during the freedom struggle against the British Raj. Dalrymple writes, “While the Indian Congress Party, led by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, tended to emphasise national unity and sought to minimise historical differences between Hindus and Muslims in order to form a united front against the British, a rather different line was taken by India’s more extreme Hindu nationalists, some of whom formed a neo-Fascist paramilitary organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (or RSS), the Association of National Volunteers.” (Dalrymple) The independence struggle side-lined the Hindu nationalists. This led to the dissemination of Nehruvian view by the Congress party. As the one-party dominance ended with the Janata Party coming to power in 1977, the government decided to withdraw several history textbooks that RSS rejected. However, it fell before it could do so.
In the 1980s, the Hindu right began gathering a strong foothold in Indian politics, especially around the Ayodhya’s Ram Mandir-Babri Masjid controversy and since then there has been no looking back. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has been spearheading this movement aimed at legitimising its claims on history by spreading saffronised textbooks in its “Shishu Mandir” schools. These textbooks paint Muslims as ruthless demons who have done great damage to Hindu culture and identity, and have thus, highlighted the need for RSS to reclaim the lost pride of Hindus. Various committees in the past have objected to such a perversion of history and declared these textbooks as a means of transforming children into a bigoted moron in the garb of instilling patriotism in them.
The Hindu right has disregarded the left history for reducing the element of religion to adjectives like “black magic”. They have vehemently spoken of their long subjugation under foreign invaders and have made it a point to reclaim their ground on their motherland. And rewriting Indian history is one of the ways to do so. Claims of Aryan being invaders, beef being eaten in the Vedic period, the far-right historians have out rightly rejected differing claims.
DANGERS OF REWRITING HISTORY
It is no surprise that every government has some time, or the other come forward to push forward the ideological interests that it owes allegiance to. Be it the Nehruvian view of history by the Congress government or the history that takes pride in Hindu identity and calls for the denigration of other narratives by the current BJP government. An ideology legitimises its claims by drawing on history and thus, the task of rewriting history has always been taken up by diverse political forces. For any ideology to establish itself on a sound level, it is through targeting the most impressionable section of the population to have the greatest impact. This has been successful enough in keeping their ideologies stable and has helped in gathering a large following by the masses.
Amidst this tussle for rightful claims over history, the discipline in itself, far from striking the right balance between values and science, has been left at the mercy of these ideologically oriented groups. And worse still, the most affected party here is our children. Children as young as ten-year-olds are being radicalised to believe that the history that is presented to them is an article of faith and no other versions of the same exist.
Such a distorted history, be it from left or right, has played a successful role in deepening the already existent social cleavages in India. The Hindu-Muslim divide being the most claimed success. The states that reek of political violence between diametrically opposite political groups draw the genesis of violence from this history.
History is defined as the study of the past. A study such as this needs to strike the right balance between scientific inquiry and morality. It is important to remember that a historian employs a specific philosophical outlook towards the study however, such a pre-determined outlook should serve the purpose of aiding him/her in his/her hypothesis and not presenting obstacles in the study. A parochial approach has the dangers of producing a history that can have severe implications for the secular fabric of a country such as ours. It is a crucial responsibility of historians to protect the truth and also exhibit a sense of tolerance towards the appearance of ‘new truths’. Any critique of a dissenting historical narrative should be done so by an appropriate academic inquiry. The governments must ensure that children are not exposed to bias through prejudiced textbooks and must also play the role of a non-interventionist in the curriculum. Measures such as these will ensure that history retains itself as the study of past that will equip today’s generation with the best understanding of the social realities that exist today.
Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “Radical Histories and Question of Enlightenment Rationalism: Some Recent Critiques of "Subaltern Studies".” Economic and Political Weekly (1995): 751-759. PDF. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/4402598>.
Dalrymple, William. “India: The War Over History.” 7 APRIL 2005. <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2005/04/07/india-the-war-over-history/>.
“Statement on Hypocrisy and Indian History.” Public statement. 2015. Document. <https://www.scribd.com/document/290482673/Statement-on-Hypocrisy-and-Indian-History-18-11-2015>.
Image source: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/politics/the-cultural-campaign-of-rss-war-over-the-mind-of-india
Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.
Get all our posts, blogs and video content via e-mail.