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Home > History Writing at Risk > India: A history to fit Hindutva | Manu V Devadevan

India: A history to fit Hindutva | Manu V Devadevan

28 October 2020

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Deccan Herald

There is now a government committee with a mandate to rewrite ancient history to Saffron specifications

by Manu V Devadevan, Oct 18 2020

In mid-September, Minister of Culture Prahlad Singh Patel informed Parliament that the government had set up a committee “for conducting a holistic study of the origin and evolution of Indian culture since 12,000 years before present and its interface face with other cultures of the world.” This is not the first attempt of its kind. A 12-member committee was set up in January 2016 for the same purpose. It is mighty uncertain what the committee did in the last five years or how much of the taxpayer’s money it spent.

The new committee consists of 16 members. Many of them were part of the 2016 committee. Among them is a Sanskrit scholar who believes that Hindu culture is several million years old. Another member holds that the existing chronological scheme of history writing is Western in its perspective and doesn’t concur with our view that the Kaliyuga is itself 125,000 years old. He also does not believe that the Vedas were produced by human beings. Also on board is an archaeologist who did significant work in the 1980s on the patterns of early human settlements in Kanpur, but became a right-wing camp follower later.

Some 32 Members of Parliament appealed to the President to disband the committee. Their major grievance was that the committee did not represent India’s demographic pluralism. The committee consists only of Brahmin and upper caste members, and has “no South Indians, North-East Indians, minorities, Dalits and women.” That the committee has no experts in Tamil or any Indian language other than Sanskrit was also noted with concern. The MPs held that such a body might come up with a prejudiced understanding of the past and fail the stated objective for which it was set up.

The MPs acknowledged that there was an objective with which the committee was set up. What they didn’t highlight is the fact that there was no clarity on the terms of reference thereof. The MPs also had little to say about the academic competence of the committee members. One wonders if it is perhaps hard for a right-wing political regime to find South Indians, North-East Indians, minorities, Dalits, women and experts in languages such as Tamil who endorse its version of the past.

Revisionism revived

The attempts to rewrite history to promote revivalist political agendas is not new. Three years ago, the then BJP government in Rajasthan declared Rana Pratap’s defeat at the hands of Akbar’s forces in the 1576 Battle of Haldighati as false history. A new Class X textbook was written accordingly and introduced in July 2017.
It said that the “military campaign by Akbar was unsuccessful and the result was in favour of Maharana Pratap.” Rajasthan University followed suit in the same month, incorporating in its reading list a certain Chandra Shekhar Sharma’s book Rashtra Ratna Maharana Pratap, which depicted Rana Pratap as the winner.

In Maharashtra, the education board did away with Mughal history altogether in the Class VII and IX textbooks introduced in August 2017, a move that the Uttar Pradesh government was keen to emulate.

These are more recent among a long series of mala fide revisions of the history textbook that India has witnessed since independence. The pattern is predictable in most instances. There is wilful manipulation of facts in the history textbooks. A controversy follows, in which a section of the progressive intelligentsia comes down heavily on the move. The matter finds some space in the media for a while but dies down in a few days. The textbooks come out unscathed and remain in place, until a new regime red-pencils them.

History-writing today

History-writing in India has made momentous strides in recent decades. The old approach that was biased in favour of the Gangetic plains, Sanskrit sources, and dynastic accounts of wars and conquests are not entertained anymore. Religion and royal dynasties are not the organising principles of the histories written today. There is greater emphasis on a plurality of historical developments. Historians explore a wide range of themes such as economic structures, political institutions, gender relations, forms of power and resistance, caste, religious systems, migrations, settlement patterns, environment, education, health and medicine, science and technology, literary conventions, linguistic histories, and aspects of everyday life. In doing so, they lay stress on a multidisciplinary approach and seek assistance from advances made in fields as diverse from one another as genetics, statistics and linguistics.

Unlike history writing in the first half of the 20th century, historians today enrich their work with ethnographies, interviews and other methods to complement archival work. They have learnt to make productive use of sources such as autobiographies, epic poetry, cinema and even everyday speech to understand the mentalities of various historical epochs.

There is also another side to the story. It is perhaps time for progressive historians in India to do some solemn introspection. Right-wing politics functions with a set of clearly discernable attributes. The production of ethnocentric narratives concerning the past is one of them. Such narratives do not circulate only in the form of school and college textbooks. I’m not sure if even a thousand-odd students have read the story of Rana Pratap’s victory in Haldighati in Rajasthan’s Class X textbook. The same story, narrated by a certain Vivek Bindra in Hindi and uploaded on YouTube a year ago, has already had more than 12 million views.

People who ardently follow such narratives number in their millions. Bindra’s channel on YouTube, for instance, has 14 million subscribers. The academia constantly overlooked this fact until the turn in India’s political fortunes in 2014. In the fight against religious fundamentalism, its focus was for decades squarely on frontal organisations such as the Sangh Parivar outfits. Members of the academia swore, rather naively, by the Gramscian belief that all men are intellectuals but not all of them have intellectual functions to perform.

It must be admitted that in the years a er independence, historians in India have done precious little to popularise history or generate persuasive accounts of the country’s pasts that are easily accessible to people. Most literate Indians are not aware of the advances made in history-writing in recent decades. In fact, few of them know that the tripartite classification of history into the ancient, medieval and modern periods is now rejected, or that historians do not recognise the Gupta period as India’s golden age anymore.

There are no refined textbooks on the history of Karnataka or Odisha or Himachal Pradesh or Gujarat, other than obsolete chronological accounts of ruling dynasties. Accessible textbooks on the history of science and technology, literature, religion, art, economic life and politics, written with the lay reader in mind, do not exist.

Audio-visual material on any aspect of Indian history, which might engage the attention of a greater number of people than a book might, is nearly impossible to find. Be it not forgotten that we are speaking of a country with nearly 300 state universities and close to 50 central universities, in addition to about 400 others classed variously as private, deemed and open universities. This is too monumental a failure to be brushed aside.

The writer, winner of the 2019 Infosys Prize for Humanities, teaches History at IIT-Mandi, and is the author of The ‘Early Medieval’ Origins of India and A Pre-History of Hinduism)

  • The 16-member North Indian ‘Manel’
  • KN Dikshit, Chairman, Indian Archaeological Society.
  • RS Bisht, ex-Joint DG, Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).
  • BR Mani, ex-ADG, ASI.
  • Prof Santosh Shukla, Special Centre for Sanskrit Studies, JNU.
  • RK Pandey, VC, LBS Rashtriya Sanskrit Vidyapeeth (LBSRSV).
  • Prof Makkhan Lal, Vivekananda International Foundation.
  • GN Srivastava, ex-ADG, Geological Survey of India.
  • Justice Mukundkam Sharma, Chancellor, LBSRSV.
  • Prof PN Shastri, VC, Rashtriya Sanskrit Sansthan.
  • Prof RC Sharma, Head, Department of Linguistics, DU.
  • Prof KK Mishra, Dean, Anthropology, University of Hyderabad.
  • Balram Shukla, Department of Sanskrit, DU.
  • Prof Azad Kaushik, Scientist, Canada.
  • Pandit MR Sharma, Chairman, “Sangmarg” World Brahmin Federation. Representative from Ministry of Culture.

P.S.

The above article from Deccan Herald is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use