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India: Revisionist history rears its ugly head

16 June 2014

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Mid Day [India], June 16 2014

by Saurav Datta

Monikers make for alarmist headlines and also elide the reality. And
anodyne handwringing or widespread navel-gazing, though making for
indulgent introspection and stormy debates, seldom do enough to make us

Therefore, this time round, when “book police” and “textbook vigilante’
Dina Nath Batra got Orient Blackswan to put historian Sekhar
Bandyopadhyay’s From Plassey to Partition: A History of Modern India under
review, the lack of an outpouring of hysterical shock, grief and protests
came as a welcome relief, for this would enable us to view things in the
proper perspective.

Orient Blackswan, academic publishers with a robust reputation, has also
decided, for reasons best known to it, to “comprehensively reassess” Megha
Kumar’s Communalism and Sexual Violence: Ahmedabad Since 1969. Batra had no
bone to pick with it, and it isn’t the first time publishing houses are
exhibiting pusillanimity, so it is futile to enter into conjectures and

Here lies the crux. Batra isn’t a lone ranger out there; it would be myopic
to dismiss him as a revanchist bigot lurking around at the fringe. His
antecedents general secretary of Vidya Bharati, the educational wing of the
Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, head of Shiksha Bachao Andolan, ten lawsuits
against the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT)
for up to 75 “objectionable passages” from various textbooks, one of the
petitioners in the Delhi High Court in 2008 against A K Ramanujam’s
“offensive” essay on the Ramayan.

His present actions within days of the new political dispensation storming
into power, he demands a total revamp of the school history textbooks so
that they reflect India’s “ancient glory”. Not only that, he has taken
umbrage at the sprinkling of Urdu and Persian words, and is determined to
agitate and get them banished.

This is redolent of the ignominious history-rewriting project undertaken by
the NDA government the last time it was in power. February 11, 2000, saw
Oxford University Press withdrawing two volumes which were a part of the
documentation of India’s freedom struggle.

The Indian Council of Historical Research, crowded with the Bharatiya
Janata Party’s (India’s principal Hindu Right political dispensation),
which had commissioned two eminent historians Sumit Sarkar and K N
Panikkar, trotted out the ostensible reason that there were huge lacunae in
Sarkar and Panikkar’s methods. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Sarkar, with scrupulous rigour, nails this lie in Beyond Nationalist Frames.

He proves that the Sangh Parivar had played no constructive role in the
independence movement. In fact, Veer Savarkar, while serving a prison
sentence under the British, had petitioned his captors for clemency,
expressing his eagerness to spill the beans about others who were waging an
armed struggle for freedom.

Not only that, in The Story of My Transportation for Life, he boasts of
having used “invincible logic and an appeal to history” to win over his
fellow prisoners, none of whom shared his religious bigotry. It would be
dishonest to hold only the Hindu Right, exemplified by Batra and his
cohorts and patrons, for skulduggery with history.

Even the so-called liberal and secular parties have done so. For instance,
in April 1993, a university student Nancy Jamshed Adajania was charged
under Section 153A of the Indian Penal Code by the Maharashtra government
for authoring a “deeply offensive” piece “Myth and Supermyth”, which had
created a furore in the legislature because the dominant Maratha community
felt that their idol Shivaji had been insulted.

The Bombay High Court subsequently quashed the charges, holding them to be
“Distressing, misguided and misdirected”. Then, in 2010, the Supreme Court
ruled in favour of James W Laine and quashed the Maharashtra government’s
ban on his book Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India, but even to this
date, the state has not permitted its sale.

In Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship, J M Coetzee postulates that only
the marginalised and powerless seek shelter in taking offence and
retaliating against insults or threats to their fragile sense identity
because they have no other way of being heard. In India, what happens is
diametrically opposite.

The powerful, the victorious, the majority-indulges in being offended,
using it to further its politics of historiography. Why does history
provide such an attractive target for the bludgeons of bigotry? Because
nothing can rival it in creating and perpetrating politico-cultural

Before Narendra Modi came to power, there was a tide of panegyric to his
development agenda, assuring us that the Sangh Parivar’s revisionist antics
were a thing of the past. But, when in the Lok Sabha, he exhorts people to
throw off the shackles of 1,200 years of slavery, the farce lies exposed.

The writer is an academic


The above article from Mid Day is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use