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Recasting Midnight Icons

Revisionist histories flourish as biographers put heroes under the microscope to court popularity

Recasting Midnight Icons
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-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553
FIFTY years after the act of creation at midnight, we're getting a little irritated with the official wisdom on our creators. The frailties of the pantheon of the freedom movement—whom an older Independence generation venerated as demigods—have been well documented in several academic works. But now books that aim at a more popular audience are demystifying the Founding Fathers, mildly rebuking the Father of the Nation for being a dysfunctional dad; exposing the ignoble "casteist" ambitions of The Father of the Constitution; describing how the first prime minister once dressed up as a woman at a party; and pointing out how the Congress—the once sacrosanct party of freedom—has always, at least ever since Subhas Bose was ousted from its presidency in 1939, been characterised by back-room deals and infighting.

Writes Arun Shourie in his latest controversial book, Worshipping False Gods: Ambedkar, and the facts which have been erased: "At every juncture Ambedkar was arrayed on the side opposed to the national struggle for freedom—on the side of the British at the Round Table Conference, on the side of Jinnah in celebrating the deliverance of the country from the Congress." Given such flawed beginnings, Shourie suggests, no wonder the term "social justice" has been reduced to a mere slogan and to a camouflage for base casteist politics. Stanley Wolpert in his by now infamous book, Nehru: A Tryst With Destiny, relying heavily on Nehru's own writings, came to certain censor-friendly conclusions: "Can Jawahar's strange accident in Norway be read as his own carefully doctored metaphoric confession of a passionate "hot" and "icy cold", indeed "numbing" love affair with a young Englishman too important for him to name, too dear to forget, his heroic other?" And in a new book on Gandhi,

Rediscovering Gandhi, author Yogesh Chadha sets out to "reclaim Gandhi the human being from the many myths that surround him" by throwing light on the Mahatma's weaknesses. He points to Gandhi's cruelty towards his sons, his politically incorrect statements on 'kaf-firs', his opposition to his second son's marriage to a Muslim and writes: "Concerning events which took place outside India, South Africa or England, Gandhi sometimes betrayed a surprising lack of knowledge." The process of demystification of leaders like Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, of course, works in the opposite way, as also in the case of V.K. Krishna Menon. Suhash Chakravarty seeks to restore Menon his rightful place in history in his new book V.K. Krishna Menon and the India League 1925-1947. In his book, Subhas Chandra Bose: Netaji's passage to immortality, Subodh Markandeya tries to demonstrate that Bose's importance was on par with Gandhi's. "Although Subhas Bose was elected Congress president in 1939, Gandhiji and the Old Guard brought a conspiracy against him...even Gandhiji would not concede the right of a democratically elected president," Markandeya says.

So while political parties erect statues and stage commemorative functions, the biography-writing classes are asking uncomfortable questions about national heroes. Why? "There is a constant need to examine the past in the light of present issues. If someone has been seen as the leader of the nation, the question that arises is, whose nation?" says historian Mahesh Rangarajan. "There is nothing inherently wrong with such books," says Prof Mushirul Hasan. "In British history, Lloyd George, Churchill have been reassessed. There is even a book called

George III and the Historians about the different interpretations of the period. If the book illuminates different facets of the person, then it is useful, but if it is an attempt to advance a personal agenda for which a nationalist leader is pressed into service, then it must be questioned." Perhaps part of the fashionable return to the freedom movement has simply to do with the burgeoning numbers of publishing houses and the need to sell their books. As Rukun Advani of OUP says: "There is certainly a shift away from academic monographs to books that are likely to be more popular." Worthy old tracts detailing the well-known great-nesses of 1947 simply won't sell in globalising India where Nehruvianism is being demolished in every fast-food restaurant and where history must be revisionist in order to be read.

"Biographies that are a response to marketisation is a well-known modern syndrome," says D.L. Sheth of the Centre of the Study of Developing Societies. "The psychologising of historical figures happens all the time. A new book on Marx tries to focus on his sexual proclivities, another says that Einstein's personal life was terrible, that Newton was power-crazy. In the Indian tradition, we derived biographies from what the person actually said about himself, such as in the case of Tulsidas, Surdas or Mirabai. But perhaps there will soon be a biography asserting that Mirabai was a schizophrenic!" Applying an impossibly 20th century mind to the past may result in a disservice to historical figures. But Giti Chandra, former lecturer at Delhi University, points out: "As new disciplines like environment studies or gender studies arise, there is a need to appropriate prominent historical figures for the cause. This then spurs a biography, bearing in mind the need to find respectability for the discipline itself." Biography-writing is also about finding new Indian identities. After the Manmohanomics turnaround, a new national identity is being created for India which reflects in the kind of biographies that are being written.

SHOURIE'S account of Ambedkar has been criticised as being part of his own right-wing agenda. Markandeya's vision of Netaji as a modernist, advocate of an industrialised economy and one free of all sectional and parochial interests, makes him the prophet of New India, his critique of the Congress as much a contemporary statement as a historical one. Wolpert's Nehru and Chadha's Gandhi are heavily "psychologised" subjects, a Freudian analysis of the actions of these freedom fighters. Yet, Shourie insists: "The important thing is the subject of the book, not the private or public agendas of the authors. If people say my evidence is selective, let them cite their own evidence." Today national heroes must be decided by debate, not by deification. "A lot of writing in the European world," says Ravinder Kumar, director of Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, "is trying to compete with television. A recent biographer of John F.Kennedy told me that his competition was not other books but television. This leads to a degree of vulgar competitiveness." In India, Kumar says, historical figures are coming under scrutiny because nationalism is increasingly being coopted by the right-wing and there has been a massive social transformation in the '80s and the '90s.

And so Bose was a victim of Congress politics, Nehru once a reckless hedonist, Ambedkar a British accomplice and Gandhi a cruel patriarch. And others may soon be up for biographical grabs, revealed as fallible or restored to history. India's founding fathers are contentious creatures nowadays.

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