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History As Told By Non-Historians

This is not a debate over historical method but an ideological fight over the definition of a nation. It is a fight that must involve not historians but citizens.

History As Told By Non-Historians
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-0001-11-30T00:00:00+0553

A few days after Prof. Satish Chandra, a historian of medieval India and author of an NCERT textbook on that period, told a packed press conference that the Sangh's criticism of his use of the sources pertaining to Guru Tegh Bahadur was so completely illiterate that it read the word `rapine' (meaning plunder and loot) to mean rape, the Union Minister for Human Resource Development (HRD), Mr. Murli Manohar Joshi wrote an article in a Hindi language newspaper claiming that Prof. Satish Chandra had said that the Guru had raped women (mahilaon ke saath balaatkar kiya).

This is just one small example of the very large gap between the two sides apparently engaged in a debate on history. The one, represented by historians working at the more liberal universities, is concerned about the practice of history writing, the uses of evidence, methods of interpretation and the corruption of these process for political ends.

The other, represented by the HRD Minister, administrators that he has appointed to education and research bodies and propagandists of the Sangh Parivar, sees history as a tool in their ideological campaign to construct a Hindu Rashtra, and is involved in producing histories that justify its political goals.

For too long, the illusion of a `debate' between evenly matched sides has been maintained, especially by the press. When the fact of the matter is that left and liberal historians and Sangh Parivar politicians are actually situated on two different planets.

The side led by Mr. Joshi makes no secret of its agenda with regard to history. It wants to re-write the history of India along the lines of RSS mythology about a Hindu Rashtra which privileges Hindus and Brahmanism above all else and defines the followers of all other faiths, especially Muslims and Christians, as foreigners against whose domination Hindus have struggled for thousands of years.

They have targeted NCERT school textbooks because they understand that the histories taught through these books have been a major influence on the way Indians look at India. These textbooks, written by Professors Romila Thapar, R.S. Sharma, Arjun Dev, Satish Chandra and Bipan Chandra hoped to give a child a better understanding of the present through an understanding of the past.

They were part of a generation of scholars who shared the idealism of the Independence movement, its struggle against colonialism, and against the injustices of existing social formations and for the creation of a modern Indian state based on the egalitarian concept of citizenship which is elevated over other primordial associations and identities such as community, caste or religion.

These historians claim that the targeting of NCERT history textbooks is an assault on history and on professional historians. They say politicians, administrators and ideologues are attempting to do battle on issues of historiography and historical evidence about which they know nothing. They say that Mr. Joshi's brigade is so completely bereft of competent historians that it refuses to expose them to the rigours of public debate, keeping even their names secret. It is their own competence as historians, their expertise in handling evidence and interpreting it that is, they say, under attack.

They are right about Mr. Joshi and his band of hidden historians. For while they battle over the correct uses of evidence and interpretation, the BJP/Sangh Parivar outfits have shown that they are not concerned about the standards of research but simply about using its rhetorical devices for their ideological purposes.

The outcome for history has been far from good. For, what has in effect happened is that the discipline of history, its methodology, its theoretical underpinnings, its critical use of evidence have, in one sense, been turned into discounted goods. To be traded in the market place of politics and ideology.

For every fact that a left or liberal historian throws into the public arena to counter the Sangh's claims the Sangh too can, as it has shown, conjure up an opposing `fact'. For every piece of masonry quoted as evidence by historians, the Sangh/BJP will produce two.

This has been true for as long as the Sangh has existed. It happened in the buildup to the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Historians of note argued then that there was no basis for the Sangh Parivar's claim that the Babri Masjid was built at the site of an ancient Hindu temple.

Hours after the saffron-clad Sanghis had achieved spiritual sublimation through their act of historic vandalism, archaeological evidence to support the claim of the existence of the temple began to appear.

Sangh-friendly palaeographers and archaeologists had their day interpreting inscriptions, dating bits of rock, and building the academic arguments to fit the needs of the Sangh's campaign.

The Sangh appeared to say you have your experts and we have ours and let the people be the judge of them. In Parliament, as on the streets, purported pillars, inscriptions, `evidence and interpretation' became corroborative evidence for those who had until then simply asserted their belief that there was a temple under the Masjid. And academic claims and counter claims remained what they are today, simply a side show to the main event.

In seminars and conferences and the lecture room, reason, logic and scientific training are sound bases for debate and the demolition of assertions passed of as scholarly arguments. In the rough and tumble of politics, in which vote banks, interest groups, and other sectarian divisions hold the key, a historian's facts and reasoned narrative are nothing against the thinnest claim of hurt sentiments or issues of faith. In politics, history is but grist to the ideological mill. Historical events become public goods to be used any way anyone wants, as the Home Minister showed last week, claiming for himself the mantle of the Mahatma and for his Rath Yatra the dynamic force of the Dandi March. Who will challenge this claim?

It may even get written into textbooks produced under the patronage of the BJP. For, school history textbooks in which fantasy, fiction and communalised narratives are passed off as factual histories are not new. The BJP has a record, much discussed lately to highlight the horrors we can expect from the new books being produced by the Sangh- controlled NCERT, of re-writing textbooks, introducing pernicious fiction as historical facts, to suit its sectarian agenda.

It did this when it was in power in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh in the early 1990s; and in Gujarat they continue to use textbooks which peddle prejudice as history. In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP Government in the early 1990s also introduced a compulsory course at University level on sanskriti which is apparently now on Mr. Joshi's agenda for higher education.

The Sangh Parivar has also run its own schools since the RSS opened the first one in 1952. Through its education wing Vidya Bharati Akhil Bharatiya Shiksha Sansthan, it has expanded the scale of operation many fold since then and today claims to be the single largest voluntary organisation involved in education, with 17,396 schools, 93,261 teachers and 22,52,848 students.

The Saraswati Shishu Mandirs, Vivekananda Vidyalayas, etc. claim to be run on the basis of the Hindu Philosophy of Life. They use educational material, (like the Sanskrit Gyan Pareeksha workbooks) which pass off absurd lies as cultural truths and historical facts. For example, they claim Homer's Illiad is modelled on the Ramayana, Jesus Christ lived in Kashmir, the Chaldean culture is based on the Vedas, Indians or Aryans were the first settlers in Iran and that Chinese warriors are descended from Kshatriyas.

Yet, until the textbooks written by some of the country's best known historians became targets of attack this industry in fantasy fiction hardly provoked comment, never mind the sort of media coverage that the controversy around the NCERT's history textbooks has generated. Neither Vidya Bharati, its long list of publications, nor the `history lessons' conducted through the thousands of RSS shakhas, inspired the start of a campaign against the Sangh's assault on history.

For, historians practicing their craft from the comfort of universities and research institutes prior to their take over by the Sangh, hardly noticed the expanding reach of the Sangh nor imagined that it would one day claim its share of institutional spoils through political power and then, perhaps, direct its ideological trident against them.

But it has done exactly this. And today as the Sangh Parivar seeks to put its own version of history in place it does not even maintain a pretence of using accepted historical methodology; it simply calls upon community and religious sentiment to justify its actions.

It does so in the knowledge that it has the power to do so. The BJP is in Government and this bestows on it (and its parent organisation) certain privileges and the respectability of high office. This includes the privilege of controlling the purse strings of and appointments to institutions engaged in historical research and textbook writing, such as the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR), the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT), and the respectability that these bestow.

So, these institutions have been stuffed full of men loyal to its Hindutva ideology and state patronage and public money now subsidises autonomous research bodies and NGOs (such as the Vidya Bharati Akhil Baratiya Shiksha Sansthan) which are engaged in constructing the origin myth of the Hindu Rashtra.

Against this background, historians who continue to argue that this battle of books is about the discipline of history are refusing to grasp the nettle. They must, if there is to be a debate, rather than a dialogue of the deaf, accept that what is at stake is not the discipline of history but a larger and more profound idea - that of the Indian nation.

And that the histories that they wrote for school, while being methodologically sound and intellectually rigorous, were influenced by a way of thinking, and ideology if you will. That this was the ideology of the Independence movement, its goal of a modern nation unified through citizenship and a shared desire for economic and social advancement.

Through the histories they wrote they hoped that young Indians would better understand how India came to be and the challenges facing it - for instance how caste remains a hurdle against development and that the separation of state and religion is crucial to any idea of equality.

By refusing to state boldly that these are worthwhile goals to have pursued, the appropriation of India and as a by-product of Indian history, by the inventors of the Hindu Rashtra will go unchallenged. For, this is not a debate over historical method but an ideological fight over the definition of a nation. It is a fight that must involve not historians but citizens.


This article first appeared in The Hindu and is reproduced here courtesy, The Delhi Historians Group.

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