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History As Politics

Links between knowledge and ideology do not justify the passing off of political agendas as knowledge as is being done in the rewriting of history by the present central government; and that too of a kind not based on the understanding of history cur

History As Politics
History As Politics

[This is substantially the text of the Professor Athar Ali Memorial lecture, organised by the Aligarh Historians Society, at the Aligarh Muslim University on 8 February 2003, titled History and Contemporary Politics in India. Incidentally, Professor Thapar has recently been named by the Library of Congress in Washington as First Holder of the Kluge Chair in Countries and Cultures of the South]

It has long been recognized that there is a link, between theories of knowledge and the lens of ideas through which the authors of these theories view knowledge. This has an application to scientific advances as well as the formulations of the social sciences. However, such links between knowledge and ideology do not justify the passing off of political agendas as knowledge as is being done in the rewriting of history by the present central government ; and that too of a kind not based on the understanding of history current among historians. Far from advancing knowledge, this new history on the contrary, is being used for forging an identity that can be exploited to support political mobilization. As a historian therefore, I am deeply concerned with what is essentially an assault on history, and the use to which it is being put is, at the same time, an abuse of history.

Some of the organizations that constitute the Sangh Parivar have, since their inception, used education to forge this identity. It is in some ways ironic that these organizations took education as a means of ideological imprinting far more seriously those who were committed to the values of an independent, modern society. This method of creating an identity through doctoring history is familiar to us from the treatment of history in Pakistan and Bangla Desh as well, although the identities thus forged are different. The tragedy is that in India there has been a strong tradition of independent historical writing of an extremely high quality that is now under attack.

The attempt in India is currently focused on history, but it raises the broader issue concerning the nature and quality of the new educational curriculum now introduced at school level, and with the intention of extending a similar interpretation of history to university level as well. Defending history assumes importance because the attack is not confined to history alone since the nature of the attack suggests that the social sciences in general will now be targeted. Furthermore, the defence of the discipline of history as an exploration of knowledge is also part of the defence of the idea of India as a democratic, secular society.

The aim to establish democracy, secularism and social justice became the ambition of the independent state of India in 1947. The debate on democracy was encapsulated in the discussions on adult franchise and the holding of regular elections. A secular society implied that there would be no discrimination on the basis of religion and to that extent the state would distance itself from religion. Secularism assumes the right to follow the religion of one’s choice, a right stated in our constitution. Social justice requires that there be an equality of citizenship and a priority for human rights. Earlier governments endorsed these values, and even if their practice was inadequate, the goal was clear. Negating these values was unheard of even if they were problematic for some sections of society.

The undermining of democracy today lies in insisting that Indian society is constituted of communities identified only by religion.Since in a democracy the wishes of the majority prevail, it is said that the Hindus being the majority community in terms of numbers, should determine public decisions. This of course makes a mockery of democracy, since a democratic majority is not a pre-determined majority and decisions can and do cut across identities of religion and other identities. It is also a refusal to concede that actually Indian society in the past had multiple identities - of caste and social hierarchy, of occupation, of language, of religious sect and of region. Religion was only one amongst these. The focus of each identity was dependent on the issue in question.

Pre-modern societies tend to regard social hierarchies as normal and although there was some questioning of these, this was not an axiom of social organization. Questioning hierarchies is fundamental to modernization. Nor was there in the earlier past any significant concern with issues of human rights, whether they related to the availability of justice, employment, education, health, welfare or other minimum facilities. In the process of modernization and particularly after independence, these were seen as the necessary foundation to the development of the nation. But today, with the reversal of the values that Indian independence stood for, they are of little consequence. They are under attack from state policies, from the leaders of industry and business houses that are supposed to provide an alternate leadership, and from those supporting a nationalism that gives priority to the Hindu citizens of India, rather than maintaining the equal rights of all citizens. This change is encapsulated in the notion of Hindutva, claiming to be guiding force of Indian nationalism. It is constantly referred to and continually redefined as and when it becomes necessary.

Hindutva is becoming the primary example of what has elsewhere been called, ‘double-speak’. It started as a political slogan in the writings of Savarkar and since then has been explained in every expedient way possible. So we have had Hindutva meaning Hindu Rashtra, that is India or as recently explained, Indianness. We have had Hindutva equated with Hinduism. This equation is unacceptable to many Hindus for whom Hinduism is not an aggressive ideology, and the Hindu religion does not require to be defended by organizing the killing of Muslims and Christians. Nevertheless, Hindutva has a following, and an influential following at that, among middle-class Hindus. It has given a new shape to what it describes as the Hindu religion and despite its hostility to Islam and Christianity, it borrows substantially from these religions in its structure and organization. This makes it different from earlier Hinduism. I have elsewhere referred to Hindutva Hinduism as a form of Syndicated Hinduism.

Hindutva has also rather perversely, been described as secularism. And now we are told that Hindutva is cultural nationalism. But we are not told whose culture is being made the national one out of the many hundreds of distinctive cultural communities that constitute India. Because cultural nationalism implies choosing a single culture and defining it as national, the inevitable choice will be upper-caste Hindu culture. This is a contradiction in India where the Indian identity has grown out of multiple cultures across the social spectrum. As is normal to all cultures these constantly mutated and changed, within the changing historical process.

Despite its initial geographic and ethnic meanings, the term Hindu finally settled as the name of a religion. It has been argued that the early religions of India were essentially religions of orthopraxy of conservative ritual practice, rather than orthodoxy, of conservative belief. Religion in India was a mosaic of juxtaposed cults and sects. Some of these had an inherent and close identity with particular social groups, others deliberately cut across groups. There was no single label by which they described themselves and they were identified as Vaishnava, Shaiva, Shakta, Lingayat and so on. Belief ranged from animism to the most sophisticated philosophy. This permitted a flexibility of belief, although not a flexibility of social identity. I am not suggesting that if belief is not rigid it brings about tolerance, although this may be so, but rather, that a distinction has to be made between intolerance inspired by religious agendas and that inspired by the rules of social organization. There was more of the latter than the former. The form taken by the Semitic religions in their Indian manifestations, particularly at the popular and regional level were also characterized by similar tendencies.

The new form now being given to Hinduism is at the root of the particular view of Indian history and culture of the current ideology of the Sangh Parivar. This is evident from the attempt to replace existing views that range over many historical explanations by a single view, supporting this ideology.

This new attitude among those now in power is not unconnected with their trajectory of knowledge. I shall try and demonstrate this with reference to the way in which history is being projected. Let me preface this by saying that the updating of knowledge is necessary to the advancement of knowledge. This involves the constant assessment and rewriting of studies that advance knowledge, as for example, standard works in history. Indian history has been rewritten with each advance in knowledge. The rewriting has moved from an initial colonial interpretation largely drawn from Oriental research and the requirements of the colonial state, to the questioning of this interpretation by historians sympathetic to the national movement. This in turn was questioned by historians of the last fifty years who were intellectually wide-ranging Liberals, Marxists, vehement non-Marxists, and such like. They covered a range of opinion. The most striking aspect of this rewriting was that the changes of interpretation grew out of intense debates and discussions, as well as critical enquiries into the historical data and the generalizations derived from it.

The so-called ‘new’ history that is currently being propagated has been introduced in entirely different ways : through mangling existing school textbooks by insisting on absurd deletions ; through surreptitiously introducing new textbooks without going through the normal procedures of having them vetted by educationists and historians ; through trying to control the history syllabus of all Indian universities by mandate of the University Grants Commission ; and through imposing the authority of the party in power by arbitrary actions preventing the publications of research institutions such as the ICHR. This change is not the result of investigating new theories of history ; it is the imposition of propaganda.

I would also like to argue that the theories being expounded in the Hindutva version of Indian history are a jump backwards to nineteenth century colonial history - the history that had been questioned by nationalist historians and discarded by more recent historians. Not only is it a borrowed history from colonial writing but it endorses the worst aspects of Orientalism. Fundamentalist histories of various kinds in ex-colonies, base themselves on the initial colonial theories about the history of their colonies. In this the Hindutva version of history is no exception. We are now being forced to return to nineteenth century colonial history. This is being dressed up as a new, original, authentically Indian version of history. It is none of this. It merely repeats much of what was said in colonial histories of India and without even the sophistication of colonial authors.

The colonial interpretation was carefully developed through the nineteenth century. By 1823, the History of British India written by James Mill was available and widely read. This was the hegemonic text in which Mill periodised Indian history into three periods - Hindu civilization, Muslim civilization and the British period. These were accepted largely without question and we have lived with this periodisation for almost two hundred years. Although it was challenged in the last fifty years by various historians writing on India, it is now being reinforced again. Mill argued that the Hindu civilization was stagnant and backward, the Muslim only marginally better and the British colonial power was an agency of progress because it could legislate change for improvement in India. In the Hindutva version this periodisation remains, only the colours have changed : the Hindu period is the golden age, the Muslim period the black, dark age of tyranny and oppression, and the colonial period is a grey age almost of marginal importance compared to the earlier two. This also echoes the views of Sir William Jones and Max Mueller. It allows a focus on the Hindu and Muslim periods which as we shall see was part of the political stand of the religious nationalisms of the early twentieth century.

Anti-colonial nationalist historians, often referred to as secular nationalist historians, had initiated a critique of the colonial period, but tended to accept the notion of a Hindu ‘golden age’. They did not distance themselves to assess the validity of such descriptions. Many were upper caste Hindus, familiar with Sanskrit and sympathetic to the idea of a glorious Hindu past. This was in some ways an attempt to assuage the hurt of having been reduced to being a colony. Similarly, the argument that the Muslim period was based on Persian and Arabic sources tended to attract upper-caste Muslims to this study and they too were sympathetic to what was stated in the sources without questioning them too closely. Even those who critiqued Mill’s periodisation merely changed the nomenclature from Hindu-Muslim-British to Ancient-Medieval-Modern in imitation of the periodisation of European history. There was a debate over colonial interpretations, but with less effort to change the methods of analysis or the theories of explanation.

Mill’s projection was that the Hindus and Muslims formed two uniform, monolithic communities permanently hostile to each other because of religious differences, with the Hindus battling against Muslim tyranny and oppression. This was the view of many colonial writers on India and in terms of presenting historical sources is exemplified in Elliot and Dowson’s, History of India as Told by her Own Historians, published in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Chroniclers of the medieval courts writing in Persian and others writing in Arabic are included, the assumption being that there was no writing of Indian history prior to the coming of Islam. Nor was there concession to segmentation within the communities in terms of varying histories of castes and sects.

This view was further reinforced in the colonial theory that the Muslims of India were foreign and alien. The subject was treated as if Muslims were - one and all - migrants, all claiming descent from the Arabs, Turks, Afghans, Mongols and what have you, who settled in India. This may have held true for a fraction of the elite, but as we know the vast majority of Muslims was Hindus converted to Islam. The few claims to an origin beyond the frontiers of the sub-continent were more often claims to status rather than a statement of ethnic origins. The regional and linguistic variations among Muslims in India gave rise to many cultural and sectarian differences that militated against a uniform, monolithic religious community. Groups labelled as Hindu were also treated as if they were identical and conformed to a single, homogenous culture.

Aziz Ahmed for instance, writing in 1963 characterized the sources of medieval history as being the Muslim epics of conquest in Persian and the Hindu epics of resistance in Hindi. These are the concepts now used in the new textbooks. There was conquest and there was some resistance but there was much else besides that should be discussed. The conquest and the resistance were more frequently over territory, political power and status. Religion was not the dominating factor as is clear from studies of these epics. The fading away of formal religious boundaries was particularly evident in the non-elite sections of society - in effect, the majority of the people. But their religion was regarded as inferior and set aside, even by historians. What earlier historians failed to emphasize was that conversion is seldom a break with the previous way of life. It invariably carries many of the culture ways of the earlier identities. Further, not all the Muslim migrants were invaders since most came as pastoralists, traders, adventurers and associates of Sufis and other such sects.

The views establishing what is now the Hindutva version of history are reflected in the writings and beliefs of the founding ideologues of the RSS and of Hindu nationalism. V.D.Sarvarkar’s definition of an Indian required that he be a person whose pitribhumi (the land of his ancestors) and punyabhumi (the land of his religion) had to be within the territory of British India. This for him disqualified the Muslims, Christians and Parsis - and he added the Communists to the list as well. M.S. Golwalkar stated unambiguously that non-Hindus could not be citizens.


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