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Burden Of History And The Need To Erase The Past For Political Gains

Historiography under previous governments can, and should, be contested. But history that’s being rewritten under the present government is not merely to eulogise some leaders, but also, and more worryingly, to condemn several chapters of the past.

Burden Of History And The Need To Erase The Past For Political Gains
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The first attempt to change an Islamic nomenclature in independent India came soon after Partition. It was not in a UP town, not by the Jana Sangh or Hindu Mahasabha, but in the coun­­try’s capital, at a place considered to be the icon of liberal values, when Modern School, Barakhambha Road, renamed its Akbar House as Subhash House. It was still the India of Gandhi and Nehru, but perhaps only one teacher at the elite school expressed his dissatisfaction.

But that was an aberration. While a Delhi school changed a name, India didn’t reject its past. Akbar was included in the pantheon of the greatest Indian rulers, as over the following decades the most influential section of Indian historiography, supported and funded by successive governments, offered sufficient space to Islamic rulers. Marking a reversal, the BJP now wants to rew­rite history from “Bharat’s perspective” that doe­sn’t gloss over the “atrocities” committed by Muslim rulers.

No narrative is final. The historiography under the previous governments can, and should, be contested. But history that’s being rewritten under the present government is not merely to eulogise some leaders, but also, and more worryingly, to cond­emn several chapters of the past. It cares little for facts, and ind­ulges in ignorance and rhetoric. In 2018, some right-wing ideo­logues visited the Indian Institute of Advanced Study in Shimla. They began their lecture claiming that the institute had been a “Leftist bastion” and they now wanted to introduce an Indic scholarship. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The institute had seen a phenomenal range of Indic research; even several of the resident scholars whom the ideologues dubbed Lefties had been working on topics not related to leftist themes.

It’s not rewriting history. It’s a rejection of any work that has not come from the Hindutva stable. It’s history in search of new enemies, both past and present. One can argue that historiography during the previous governments tried to create the idea of a composite past because it was a political project necessary to heal the wounds of Partition. But the project undertaken by the BJP government doesn’t seek to mend bridges; it only creates new rifts for political gains.

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Markers of history An artist paints a mural of Netaji in Delhi | Photo: Getty Images

Significantly, the right-wing has chosen the language of victimhood. A majoritarian government with a massive mandate wants to rewrite history because the previous scholarship was “unjust” to the Hindus. This fanning of victimhood makes it all the more hypnotic to its followers. This history is being rewritten from a position of authority, but shrouded as a victim’s cry.

Consider a similar instance in the neighbourhood. Hong Kong is preparing to introduce new textbooks that will assert that it was never a British colony. The Chinese Communist party mak­es this assertion from the vantage point of authority, and doe­sn’t portray itself as a victim as it erases traces of the British. But when the BJP talks about the “long slavery”, it assumes a tone of resurrection by a suppressed population and, thus, competes with marginalised groups like Dalits and Adivasis.

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Some of the BJP’s attempts were made possible because the historiography supported during the long Congress rule mainly focused on its First Family. Even the most visible symbols were not spared, as maximum nam­es of places, hospitals and roads went to the family. Consider the absurdity of Congress’s iconography that during the 2013 assembly election campaign in interior Bas­tar, the party banners read “Indira, Rajiv ka balidan, yaad rakhega Hindustan (India remembers the martyrdom of Indira and Rajiv)”. The Adi­vasi land of Bastar recognised neither the names nor the ‘martyrdom’, but the Congress could not offer them any local leader.

The Congress even ignored Sardar Patel, Subhas Chandra Bose and Lal Bahadur Shastri, leaving the ground empty for the right-wing to appropriate these icons. Perhaps the most glaring ins­tance is the exclusion of Bhagat Singh, an avowed communist leader, from the pantheon of Indian leftists. Visit any office of the numerous Left parties and you’d find Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin. The Indian Left couldn’t locate a single icon in India’s vast history to celebrate and idolise. The right-wing could never have taken a rem­ote stab at Bhagat Singh had the Left not abandoned the revolutionary leader.

That said, the Congress regime did record fascinating debates over the politics of history. In 1969, a young scholar named Sudhir Chandra wrote a sca­thing review of “Communalism and the Writing of Indian History” in the Economic and Political Weekly. The book was jointly written by historians Rom­ila Thapar, Harbans Mukhia and Bipan Cha­ndra, and published by Peoples Publishing House. Chandra, who went on to become a great Gandhian scholar, questioned the historiography of the three stalwarts who gave a long rope to Islamic rulers. Chandra wrote that Thapar “wishes to establish that temples were plundered by Hindus and Muslims alike…Were she not anxious to demolish a certain approach, she would certainly have inquired whether the Hindu rulers were as ready to resort to this source of replenishing their treasury as the Muslim rulers were.”  

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Markers of history Mussolini laying the foundation stone of Cinecittà Studios in Rome | Photo: Getty Images

Underlining the flaws in Mukhia’s attempt to draw equivalence between jizya and zakat, Chandra wrote that such comparison between “the two taxes overlooks the simple fact that jizya created what was often a galling distinction between the faithful and the heathen. Nor would it be correct to say that the two meant the same thing in terms of pressure on the two communities”. How did the three respond to these blistering words? In a subsequent issue of EPW, they wrote a long and joint rejoinder to the 28-year-old scholar and accused him of having a “communal approach to Indian history”. The EPW, in a remarkable editorial decision, sent their rejoinder to Cha­ndra, asking him to write his reply, as both the pieces appeared in a single issue.

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Despite all the imperfections and contestations, historiography was being deb­ated during the previous regimes. There were favours and fawning, but scholarship was respected. “While during the Cong­ress’s rule, the third or the fourth best person headed academic institutions, the thirty-first or the thirty-second best are at the helm during the BJP’s rule,” historian Ramachandra Guha tells Outlook.   

Such agenda-driven history cannot but ignore scholarship, engender sycophants and destroy institutions. India has seen several debates between revivalists and modernists, beginning with deleting late 19th century, one of which was remarkably captured in Tagore’s Gora. But there is no longer any debate. History is now a political tool to tarnish and demolish opponents. The keywords in the entire end­­eavour are ‘nationalist’ and ‘anti-­nat­ional’. Union home minister Amit Shah once underlined the need to “rewrite history” from an “Indian point of view”. What is an Indian point of view? Is there a homogenous Indian point of view?

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A mature civilisation is not expected to trade in binaries, and the duty of intellectuals is to resist the generalisations politics make. For a historian, nothing in the past is untouchable or irredeemable. The marker of scholarship is the moment when you come across what you had hitherto perceived as your inevitable, irresolvable other. How a historian deals with this moment will define their project. Do they look away and conveniently bypass the uncomfortable situation? Do they trample over it, condemning it? Or do they give it due respect and adjust their work accordingly, with a firm belief that the darkest chapters of the past can offer clues to the present?

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In his essay, Theses on the Philosophy of History, Walter Benjamin wrote: “Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.”  How should a civilisation engage with its dead? In 1937, Benito Mussolini established Cinecittà Studios in Rome for producing prop­­­aganda films. The studio was bombed during WWII. When Italian filmmakers began reviving their cinema after the war, they could have easily avoided the studio that carried the nightmares of fascism. However, they chose to rebuild upon his legacy and made the Cinecittà their home. Within a few years after Mussolini’s fall, the studio produced some of the greatest movies ever. The great Italian neo-realism was born in the once cradle of fascism. The Cinecittà became the nucleus of European cinema, drawing Hollywood greats. But for such a creative dialogue with the past, a civilisation requires maturity and sanity, in short quantity in contemporary India.

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(This appeared in the print edition as "Past Forward")

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