By Naomi Hazarika:
George Orwell in his dystopian classic novel ‘1984’ wrote, “He who controls the past, controls the future. He who controls the present, controls the past.” Historical revisionism has so far been as important a political tool in Indian politics as vote banks or ‘pro-poor policies’. Such an attempt to re-write history is usually the illegitimate distortion of historical records for the furtherance of certain agendas backed by people in power. Plato once very wisely stated that the storyteller has all the power. The issue of historical revisionism was raised in the Congress era as well, but more so now, because of the Sangh Parivar’s rigorous proactive involvement in bringing out sections of history that are to be interpreted in their way. Moreover, a Prime Minister that claims that because in the Mahabharata, it is said that Karna was not born from his mother’s womb, “…Genetic science must have been present in the time the historical epic was written…” (Speaking at the inauguration of the Sir H.N. Reliance foundation Hospital and Research centre), it is imperative that we revisit the topic of using history and mythology to back a certain agenda, in this case to use it as a basis for claiming scientific achievements as well.
Like any other path to attain knowledge, the end goal of history is in the pursuit of truth, as Irfan Habib puts it. All kinds of bias; racial, religious, regional, and national, must be kept away from the narratives of History. Especially when Indian Historiography, although representative of the existence of differences and biases, has always been within the limits of historical evidence. But the recent thrust on the importance of the exclusive “Aryan” identity has seen no boundaries. From claiming that the Harappan Civilization should be renamed “Sarasvati Sindhu”, to the RSS calling historians like Wheeler and Max Mueller “racists”, we can see a definitive pro-Vedic push that Indian history is being subjected to. Manifestations of such a line of thinking can be seen in the form of the Babri Masjid demolition and various other claims that offer a Hindu alternative version of things including the one about the Taj mahal. While having views, opinions and commentaries on historical events are complimentary to the maintenance of a rich tradition of healthy discourse in the annals of society, shaming another culture, denial of historical evidence and the worst of it all, furtherance of a political agenda through history should be strictly dealt with.
India is a country blessed with diversity and has been courageous enough to adopt a culture of religious tolerance to deal with these differences. Values of secularism and peaceful co-existence have always been our virtues. But wherever such deep differences exist, so does an inherent need to find one of these identities to cling on to. This is where the Hindu Nationalist identity comes into play. For a long period of time, right wing political organisations have fought for this singular and largely Hindu identity that should define whatever is essentially Indian. This is where the problem begins. After the establishment of identities in such hierarchical structures, conflict is bound to take place. Political affiliations make matters worse in a country where Marx’s words are more than just true, of religion being the “opium of people.” Every arena of the country is polarised into identities and definitive groups of people which are in conflict with each other over one issue or the other. History, necessarily, needs to be out of this polarised sphere of tensions. It needs to be representative of historical evidence and logical, if not proved, chain of events. Moreover, it needs to be free from arbitrary alterations backed by vested interests.
History has always been rewritten, the issue here is for it to not just represent and establish one version of it. It should be the “ground of contestation” as British Historian David Washbrook puts it. As long as there is dialogue and debate, the democratic fervour of a narrative will still be alive. Every story has two sides and for a holistic view of what our past was, we need to make sure that both sides are out in the open, devoid of any alterations. It is extremely imperative for us to understand the importance of being able to shape the future generation of our nation through education and more directly through school books. The Central Government has direct access to educational institutions like NCERT and CBSE that literally pen down the education our children are to receive. To make sure that this tool is not misused, the values of religious tolerance and democratic values of discussion and debate needs to be instilled in people. The one identity that binds us together need not be a singular common religion or culture but an imaginary feeling that is for the benefit and welfare of our great nation. The definition of being Indian should not be narrow and divisive but heterogeneous and all-inclusive. The moment we realise this, the need to alter history to suit one side’s interests will die a natural death.
Also Read: There have been renewed efforts to manipulate history for vested interests, here’s an interesting take by Heeba Din on what she thinks are The Problems With Systemic ‘Saffronisation’ Of Education In India.