On the politics of ‘Hindu History’
One of the first important nominations by the Narendra Modi government is the appointment of the retired History professor, Yellapragada Sudershan Rao, as head of the Indian Council of Historical Research. As I could see from spontaneous comments appearing in my mailbox, Hindu-minded historians and intellectuals tend to be very disappointed by this.
To them, this nomination amounts to the waste of a beautiful and rare opportunity to achieve an overhaul of the apparently never-ending Marxist dominance in the sectors concerned with Indian history. They consider Rao unfit for the job: too old to provide the dynamic leadership that is needed to affect real change (the RSS gerontocrats clearly wanted to reward one of their own kind), and especially, too associated with the caricature version of “rewriting Indian history”.
By contrast, in secularist and other anti-Hindu circles, the joy is palpable though strategically silent. They feign indignation at Yellapragada’s appointment but among themselves they are elated, for they too consider him incompetent and likely to expose the whole idea of “Hindu history” to ridicule. Once more they congratulate themselves on an impending Hindu misadventure in history-rewriting, as if concluding: “Hindu activists are unspeakably evil, but fortunately, they are also abysmally stupid.” Let us read a typical secularist reaction, viz. an article by Shoaib Daniyal: “Five things Hindutva historians are obsessed with” (scroll.in, 6 July 2014).
He notes that “the new head of the Indian Council for Historical Research wants to re-examine established notions about the country’s history”. So far, so good, for it is the most normal thing in the world for a historian to take a new look at established accounts and the underlying data. But then he notes that Yellapragada “is also president of the Sangh Parivar-affiliated Bharateeya Itihaasa Sankalana Samithi, an organisation that seeks to write history from an Indian nationalist perspective from ‘the beginning of kaliyuga onwards’.”
This implies the chronology of the event that traditionally signaled the transition from Dwapara Yuga to Kaliyuga, viz. the death of Krishna Vasudeva and the preceding war described in the Mahabharata epic. Again, this is a legitimate object of research, investigated by many historians, philologists and archeao-astronomers. What Yellapragada has made of it, however, with what Daniyal calls his “literalist interpretation”, is part of the reason for the Hindu criticism of his appointment.
One could study the Mahabharata as a product of history. It could be read as having different layers, which in this case is admitted by the work itself: it had by its own account started as a core narrative (Jaya, “Victory”), then expanded (Bhārata, “Bharata’s clan”), and then expanded to its present form (Mahābhārata, “Great [epic] of Bharata’s clan”). And certainly its redaction history is even more complex than that. Many philosophical chapters have been inserted into it, sometimes adapted to its narrative structure, most famously the Bhagavad-Gita. However, one could also read it as an unchangeable, forever perfect revelation. This is rather common among Hindus, but obviously doesn’t fit someone with a vocation as historian.
So, there is reason to fear a “politicization of history”. In Daniyal’s assessment: “This was inevitable. Politics has always used history as a tool and agent.” Right on, Shoaib. The secularist regime, in power for more than half a century, has distorted history very thoroughly to serve its own political vision. (I don’t need to say it, Daniyal already implies as much himself.) There is now, naturally, a crying need to set the record straight and remedy these distortions.
But the BJP does not have a good record in this regard. In ca. 2002, it tried to achieve an overhaul of the history textbooks officially recommended to the Indian schools, but only managed to cover itself in ridicule. The textbook reform became a horror show of incompetence. The best of the textbooks, probably the only one up to standard, was by Dr. Meenakshi Jain, therefore also the main attractor of specious secularist criticisms, as the other textbooks were already considered as rendered harmless by ridicule.
Naturally, Daniyal is happy to remind the readers of the episode: “The move is reminiscent of the appointment of Murli Manohar Joshi as human resources development minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Bharatiya Janata Party government. Joshi made a number of appointments in crucial academic positions that were criticised by academic historians at the time as attempts to saffronise the curriculum and position Hindu scriptural dicta as academic thought.” Well, nothing came of it.
On the one hand, the BJP tried to appease the secularists by appointing secularists, even proven enemies of the BJP, to posts with high visibility (but were of course never rewarded with compliments for being oh so secular). On the other, they promoted a fanciful history-rewriting, which ended up only embarrassing them. This time around, a similar scenario is likely to unfold, to the great joy of the secularists.
“The Medieval Period as India’s Dark Ages”
So, Daniyal promises us to take a look at “five areas where Hindutva historians have sought to rewrite accepted histories”. As we shall see, in some of these areas, the “Hindutva historians” merely restore what was a matter of consensus a century ago, and it is the secularists who have done their own rewriting, at variance with both the old consensus and the primary sources. Anyway, here goes.
“When prime minister Narendra Modi mentioned India’s ‘slave mentality of 1,200 years’ in the Lok Sabha, he was asserting that it was not only during the 200 years of British dominion that Indians were enslaved, but in the preceding 1,000 years of Muslim-rule as well.” So Daniyal is now going to prove that Muslim rule was neither oppressive nor foreign.
“Indian historiography does not consider the medieval period foreign rule, primarily because the Muslim kings engaged with Indian culture meaningfully as they ruled, and were not economically extractionary like the British colonists. Historians associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have long sought to challenge this, painting the years of Muslim rule as foreign.”
Did Jadunath Sarkar consider Muslim rule native? Did he ignore its exploitative aspects? It is not “Indian historiography” that denied the Sultans’ foreign origin, foreign language and foreign religion, it is only the Marxists who have lorded it over the cultural and educational sectors the past few decades. The Sultans were very extractionary, both through the toleration tax and through the land tax, but most of those who conquered India from abroad soon lost their home base. They invested lots of Indian tax money in trying to recover their Central Asian homeland, which generally did not succeed, but proved their foreign orientation.
Only the first Muslim regime was a colonial state with an enduring foreign base: Mohammed bin Qasin, who conquered Sindh in 712, was Viceroy of the Caliphate based in Damascus. The British were exploitative, to be sure, but next to their brutal exploitation, they also gave much in return, from modern democracy to the rediscovery of the Sankrit textual tradition. No Muslim ruler can take any such credit. In that sense, not the thorns but the roses of colonialism, Muslim rule was indeed not a colonial system.
Not just “historians associated with the RSS”, but anyone who can read primary sources, can see that the Muslims saw themselves as foreign occupiers. To tell their syrupy stories, the reigning secularists have to keep the primary sources out of view. But people like Daniyal have an interest in identifying a dissident view of history with the RSS,– the same interest that the RSS has.
Both want to keep the objective view, cultivated by some Hindu and foreign historians as their only salvation, out of view, and pretend that only the RSS thwarts the total dominance of the secularists. The RSS wants to aggrandize itself as the only representative of the Hindus, and the secularist establishment wants to render any challenge to their distorted version of history suspect by its association with the ill-reputed RSS. The RSS and the secularists are strange bedfellows.
“In January, Hindutva adherents on Twitter created a furore over Tipu Sultan being featured on Karnataka’s Republic Day float. A number of Indian historians have championed Sultan as one of the few kings who refused to submit to England’s military advantage.” Tipu Sultan was a persecutor of the non-believers, as he himself and many other contemporary sources testify.
His opposition to the English only meant that he was allied with the French. Both were colonial powers, and it was by no means settled that England and not France would rule India. He was by no means a nationalist or freedom-fighter. But the secularists are powerful enough to let their own false version of history pass as the official one.
“An extreme version of the efforts to delegitimise rulers of this age is found in the works of historian PN Oak (quoted often by a member of the BJP, Subramanian Swamy). Oak claims that the Taj Mahal was once a Shiva temple named ‘Tejo Mahalaya’ that the Mughals simply took over, changing the name slightly.” P.N. Oak was not a historian, though indeed far too many Hindus call him that – and secularists, as you can see right here. Oak’s popular but nonsensical version of history is an embarrassment for genuine Hindu historians.
Sita Ram Goel and myself repeatedly wrote against his stories and the damage he was doing to the cause of genuine history. Secularists, by contrast, promote him all they can. Thus, after only one page, Daniyal himself has not mentioned or qualified and productive historians like … and Goel, but he has already smuggled in Oak, who actually remains the only Hindu historian mentioned throughout this article. Secularists are past masters at deviousness, and most Hindus are too naïve to see through their game.
The Golden Hindu Age
“Looking past the many advances India made in the medieval period, Hindutva historians often look to ancient India for a sense of historical sustenance.” Which are these “many advances”? I don’t know of any, but I know that the Muslims destroyed the universities, razed thousands of temples, destroyed many social institutions, destroyed the freedom of millions by keeping or exporting them as slaves.
Anyway, Daniyal has a point when he observes: “Ironically, the preferred morality of the RSS is modeled more on 19th-century European sensibilities than the mores prevalent in ancient India.” Yes, the RSS is all for the suppression of carefree or alternative forms of sexuality and of free speech, and this does indeed follow laws imposed by the Victorian British on the Hindus precisely because these lacked such laws. However, the following line is only part of the truth: “Historians such as DN Jha, who have showed that some people in ancient India ate beef, are therefore attacked.”
To say this just after Arun Shourie has highlighted the fraud which DN Jha committed when he was ICHR chairman in 2004, is essentially a rehabilitation. When all eyes are on the lies propagated by the “eminent historians”, and the central question of Daniyal’s article ought to be how the new ICHR appointee is going to clean up this Augian stable, it is simply a tactic of misdirection to launch this tirade about cow-slaughter.
“In an interview with the Telegraph, Rao bluntly confirms that his aim is to ‘rewrite ancient history’.” Well, if history has been controlled for decades by shameless history distorters, it is only to be hoped that he will rewrite history. When Marxist power came crashing down in the Soviet bloc in 1989-90, the history textbooks were also rewritten, and quite justifiably. What is to be feared, however, is that by “rewriting history”, the new chairman has a PN Oak caricature in mind. This will prove unsustainable and will certainly lead to another defeat, like the preceding BJP government’s attempt, and like the California textbook debacle.
Scholarship around Hinduism
“Religious history, in itself, is a useful field given how society is shaped by faith. Archaeologists like BB Lal and SR Rao have even sought to determine the truth of events related in the Mahabharata through their research. Unfortunately, much of this work has been literalist in approach, reminiscent of the Biblical archaeology movement.” I wholeheartedly share this concern. My mailbox is regularly flooded by Hindu history-rewriters who want to prove some point of ancient history and use a text passage as “evidence”. Gullible Hindus are indeed the Hindu historians’ worst enemies; which is why they are secretly encouraged by the secularists.
“This perception is reinforced by the treatment that Wendy Doniger’s work on Hinduism has received. Dinanath Batra, the senior RSS member who ensured Doniger’s publishers pulped her book, advised the previous BJP government on education policy.” Long before Doniger’s book was pulped, an event which the secularists have eagerly highlighted, her book was replied to in detail by Vishal Agarwal, a successful medical engineer and Sankrit teacher. He showed that she was either wrong or unmistakably biased in hundreds of passages.
For a lifelong tenant of a very prestigious Indology chair, it is shameful that she could deliver such substandard work. But the fact that her work was anything but scholarly, has been carefully hidden by the secularists, including in the present article. Yet the fact that such a bad book was universally applauded and even earmarked for an Indian award, tells you a lot about the power equation, with the anti-Hindu forces jubilantly on top. That is a more valid news item than the senile RSS leadership’s invocation of a British censorship law originally enacted to prevent the Arya Samaj from criticizing Islam.
“Hindutva historians such as the Belgian Indologist Koenraad Elst explain the linguistic links between India and Europe through a theory in which Europeans are the modern descendants of people who migrated out of India, spreading their language in the process. This is crucial given how Hinduism is defined as completely indigenous to India by the RSS. But this theory has little credibility in linguistics and historical research. The Kurgan Hypothesis (or the Aryan Migration Theory) is the mostly [sic] widely-accepted model.”
Dr. Koenraad Elst, the undersigned, is by no means a “Hindutva historian”. Daniyal would have known that if he had cared to read books of mine such as BJP vs. Hindu Resurgence or Decolonizing the Hindu Mind. In those, I criticize the organized Hindu movement. The difference with Daniyal is, in all modesty, that I happen to know what I am writing about, while he doesn’t. To be sure, he doesn’t need to do the research I have done. He can just parrot the conventional wisdom mouthed by the secularists, this will get him a lot farther in life.
As for the Aryan Invasion Theory, which in every variant boils down to an invasion scenario (though its fashion-conscious camp-followers prefer the weasel word Migration), it is sub judice, or at least, it is the object of a debate. That the Russia-centred “Kurgan Hypothesis is the [most] widely-accepted model”, may over-awe the common bourgeoisie as well as conformist academics, but carries little weight with real scholars. Every new theory started out in opposition against the established position. So, on the Aryan question, the evidence will have to decide.
Meanwhile, the AIT has been far more associated with politics than any Out-of-India Theory. From British colonialism over National-Socialism to Dravidianism and neo-Ambedkarism, it has been politically used in far more countries, for a far longer time, and not by a handful of marginal scholars but by governments and by elites wielding political and cultural power. Indeed, if the AIT didn’t enjoy the premium of its association with power and status, I don’t think Daniyal would be supporting it. Like most secularists, he doesn’t have a clue about this intricate question and merely makes whatever the establishment says into his own “opinion”.
Re-interpreting the Freedom Movement
“Though each period of Indian history has become a source of contest, the freedom movement is possibly the most politicised segment of Indian history. The Congress has its own band of historians who have interpreted the period as per its needs. Surprisingly, the BJP agenda here is the least contentious and comprises what are basically petty turf wars involving individuals.
When the BJP was last in power, bitter squabbles arose over whether Hindutva ideologue Veer Savarkar’s picture should go up in Parliament or not. Nehru – a fond target of the Hindutva right – will probably come under more attack, and his more conservative contemporary Vallabhbhai Patel will be championed.”
I agree with these observations. Obviously, after sixty or so years of Congress distortion of its own role during the British period, any new government would have to correct the resulting warped history. Both Congress and the RSS Parivar were spawned by the Freedom Movement, and both profess forms of “nationalism”. In this regard, the two are not all that different.
Congress has of course exaggerated and whitewashed Mahatma Gandhi’s role, and a handful of Hindu historians take a very critical stand on Gandhi, but don’t expect the BJP will seriously intervene in the image of the Mahatma which the younger generations are fed. Gandhi’s murder by an ex-RSS-volunteer makes the subject too touchy, and the RSS always avoids difficult subjects.
A word of caution: “Yet, even as the RSS makes strenuous efforts to refashion history to suit its own needs, it must be pointed out to anybody excessively alarmed (or pleased) by this, that official histories have a pretty small role to play in today’s world. For example, the current set of history textbooks published by the National Council for Educational Research and Training are truly well-written, with little political interference and featuring the latest research. Most politically aware Indians, though, simply ignore them and pick such history off the Internet, that best fits their preconceived notions.”
I don’t think they are all that well-written, but let that pass. They only got their chance because the preceding BJP textbooks were a failure. At any rate, it is true that the information landscape has drastically changed. And the RSS is not known for quick adaptations to changes.
Moreover, most of the primary research is now done outside India. More academics in India seem to be keeping away from the hard grind of primary-source research, an attitude that American Sanskrit scholar Sheldon Pollock has described as ‘cultural genocide’. That, perhaps, is something we should be worrying about more.
The world outside India certainly deserves our attention. It is safely in the pocket of the secularists, who control the bottleneck of the information flow from India to the rest of the world. Most foreign India-watchers don’t even know that they are being manipulated, others gladly collaborate with every secularist distortion. We might comment on Pollock’s place in this power equation, but we very much concur with his appreciation of India’s forgetfulness concerning its own heritage.
Every talented young Indian seeks to become a doctor or engineer, and only the remainder enters the Humanities, which are also neglected by the political class. It is not clear that the Narendra Modi government or its new ICHR appointee plan to do anything about this.