State Power's Attempts at Rewriting History
There is one thing unique about
the present dispensation holding reins of power at the Centre. What one
witnesses that the cabinet ministers-who go by the principle of collective
responsibility-follow the dictum in letter and spirit. Thus, it is not considered
unusual when a minister holding X portfolio shares their opinion about an
urgent issue before Y ministry and vice versa. This process has been so
normalised that when recently Home Minister Amit Shah, who according to his
followers is the new 'Iron
Man' of India-thanks to the
abrogation of Article 370-shared his views on need for 'rewriting history', no
eyebrows were raised.
No commentator even asked why
the home minister-a graduate in bio-chemistry who has also worked as a
stockbroker and in co-operative banks [Sheela Bhatt, "What Amit Shah's fall really
28, 2010]-was found the most apt person to inaugurate a two-day seminar on a subject of history at
Banaras Hindu University where he shared his pearls of wisdom. His emphasis was
that Indian historians should "rewrite history from an Indian perspective". The
focus of the seminar was on Skandagupta Vikramaditya, the fifth-century AD
Interestingly, it appeared a bit
strange that, while talking about 'rewriting history' or sharing his utter
disdain for 'leftist' history or presenting Hindu Rashtra proponent Vinayak
Damodar Savarkar as an exemplar before scholars, Amit Shah exhibited complete
amnesia about earlier attempts in this direction.
Was the silence so inadvertent?
Remember, it has been more than
two decades since the first Bharatiya Janata Party-led government assumed reins
of power at the Centre when Prof Murli Manohar Joshi handled the Human
Resources Development portfolio. He sort of pioneered the attempts to
'Indianise' history. Taking a cue from the then Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh
Supremo KS Sudarshan's exhortation about weeding out "anti-Hindu Euro-Indians" from the curriculum, feverish attempts then gained momentum to remake
educational curriculum in Hindutva's own exclusivist image. Stalling of the
Indian Council of Historical Research project 'Towards Freedom' in 1999, which
was edited by noted scholars like Sumit Sarkar and K N Panikkar-as it contained
enough documentary evidence about RSS and Hindu Mahasabha's compromising role
during anti-colonial struggle-happened to be a significant moment of this 'Indianisation'.
One can recall how in the year
2001, the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) decided
to delete passages from prescribed textbooks on the ground that they allegedly
hurt the sentiments of this or that religious sect or community. A delegation
had met Joshi and had demanded that the editors of these textbooks-all of them
renowned scholars of the subject-namely Professors Romila Thapar, R S Sharma
and others should be put behind bars, and Joshi had no qualms in admitting that 'academic terrorists' are more dangerous than armed ones.
The focus of this 'rewriting'
was basically to "[p]rove that Hindu culture was autochthonous to India
and that since its origins were connected with the Aryans, the Aryans, too were
indigenous to the subcontinent: that the Vedas were composed around 9,000 BCE
and the Mahabharata battles were fought in 2,000 BCE, and so on." (The Making of India : Political
History, Routledge, p. 334). New
courses such as Vedic Mathematics and Vedic Astrology were also introduced to
project greater glory of Hinduism.
The net effect of this project
of 'Indianising' education was definitely not very encouraging. By the brute
use of state power, it could stop few publications financed by the University
Grants Commission or was 'successful' in deleting passages here and there,
appoint its own 'scholars' at various posts, etc.
What the saffrons, however, had
not expected was that their haphazard efforts would invite criticism from their
own members as well.
Prof M L Sondhi, who was a
former member of the BJP's national executive committee and headed the Indian
Council of Social Science Research, had then strongly criticised his own government's
approach towards education. He had said that the country's premier research
bodies were being coerced into "radically changing their courses" or "forced
into intellectual obscurantism".
As expected, BJP's move did
galvanise not only historians but scholars of other social science disciplines
too. Perhaps, it was a reflection of this broad-based unity among scholars and
teachers that, with the BJP-led government's exit from the levers of power in
the 2004 and UPA's taking hold of its reins, one of its key agenda in the field
of education became 'detoxifying' it.
With the return to power of the
BJP in the year 2014, the country was subjected to the second edition of this
One could say that Prime
Minister Modi himself initiated this trend in a rather unique way by delivering
a speech which was a cocktail of mythology and history. The occasion was the
inauguration of a hospital started by Ambani foundation. He told the doctors
gathered there that "many discoveries of modern science and technology were
known to the people of ancient India." The mythological figure Karna and the
Hindu god, Ganesha, Modi had said, were creations of cosmetic surgery and reproductive
genetics "used thousands of years ago".
The appointment of Prof Y
Sudershan Rao, at Kakatiya University, as Chairman of the prestigious Indian
Council of Historical Research (ICHR) could be underlined as a major step taken
by the first Modi government at the Centre for its project of rewriting
history. Unfamiliar to most historians, wirh little visibility of his research,
Prof Rao's appointment had raised quite a furore among academics.
What had prompted his
appointment to the top post who had at 'best published popular articles on the
historicity of the Indian epics but not in any peer-reviewed journal' was his
long association with with the Bharatiya Itihasa Sankalan Samithi (BISS) founded by P N Oak, a soldier and a writer
(1917-2007) who can be described as a fringe Hindu-centric historical
negationist. Oak maintained that modern secular and Marxist historians have
fabricated "idealised versions" of India's past and drained it of its
"Vedic context and content". And he went on propagating his ideas
writing articles, publishing books and also initiating the work of 'collecting
local history' by forming BISS, which also used to bring out a journal in the
While Oak's weird theories like 'Christianity and Islam being both derivatives of Hinduism' or 'Like Taj Mahal,
Catholic Vatican, Kaaba, Westminster Abbey were once Hindu temples to Shiva' or 'Vatican being originally a Vedic creation called Vatika and that the Papacy
was also originally a Vedic Priesthood' or his complete denial of Islamic
architecture in India could not find any takers in the mainstream and in fact
were rejected in academia, they gathered a popular following in the Hindu Right
which is still in search of a grand theory to further its agenda. It should
also be noted that Oak had even petitioned the Supreme Court to rewrite the
history of Taj Mahal as being built by a Hindu King during NDA's first stint of
power at the Centre. Perhaps, the then conducive political atmosphere might
have prompted him to gain further legitimacy but he was sadly mistaken. A
two-member division bench of the Supreme Court dismissed the 'misconceived' petition with these remarks 'Somebody has a bee in his bonnet, hence this petition'.
Any individual can spot the
weirdness of Oak's theories but a cursory glance at Modi's first regime makes
it evident how various leaders of the saffron party echoed Oak's 'theories' on different occasions
underlining the respect he still enjoys among them.
As one can see, like their top
leaders who mix mythology and history with ease, it is rather difficult to
communicate to a saffron activist on the ground that history writing is
different from storytelling. With the use of state power, they can as well ask
a school board to make changes in history to suit one's ego or community, but
truth based on available resources would continue to haunt them. For example,
merely two years back, the Rajasthan Board of Secondary Education approved
a change in
the history section of Class X social science books about Maharana Pratap's
conclusive victory over Akbar in the Battle of Haldighati. It is a different
matter that all available sources tell us that Mughals were the victors.
Mr Amit Shah fails to understand
that one has to have an understanding of historiography which is basically
developing a method to discern the past. In the absence of any such theory,
what can happen is that anyone can box in such grand theories.
James Mill wrote History of British India almost 200 years back, wherein he periodised Indian history into three periods - Hindu civilisation, Muslim civilisation and the British period. These were
accepted largely without question and we have lived with this periodisation for
the whole period. As mentioned by this author before, "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."
Is Hindutva fine with this association?