Sunday, June 21, 2015

Concocted histories

Perhaps there is no other country in the world where history writing is as controversial as in India. History has been constantly politicized right from the time of British rule that it has become seemingly impossible to discern falsehood from the truth. This is not to say that history was never used as a propaganda tool in other parts of the world. We have the classic examples of Victorian England and Nazi Germany. But nowhere does  the ground situation offer scope for higher politicization than the countries of South Asia. And being a country of enormous proportions and varying multitudes each pursuing their own agenda, India was always a hotbed of distortions and falsifications.

Traditions of history writing in India could be broadly classified into two schools - left wing Communist and right wing Hindu nationalist . Each school of historians have had their heyday in turn (currently, it is the ascendancy of the Hindu right) and each have introduced their own dosage of venom to polarize the susceptible Indian mind. So, while Hindu nationalists have been preaching that the Aryan Invasion Theory was a blatant lie and that all practising Hindus are natives of India thereby justifying violence against Muslims who were outsiders, Communist historians had gone out-of-the-way to whitewash the record of iconoclast Muslim monarchs. But using terms like "Hindu" and "Muslim", you might wonder if I too have caught the fever. But it is not so - it is only apt that I use the terms Hindu and Muslim instead of politically-correct denominations as Indian, Arab, Persian, Turk, Afghan or Moghul for it is to nourish the ideologies of Hindu pride or Muslim appeasement that such histories have been concocted.

First, let us examine the newer school of history writing - nay, it isn't the younger of the two by any yardstick,  having had its beginnings in the writings of Tilak at the end of the nineteenth century but it is  surely the one which had lacked official sanction and patronage for a long, long time. Many hesitate to consider  this school of historiography as little more than the disgruntled ramblings of a few isolated amateurs who had been nurturing centuries-old grudge against all foreign invaders from the time of Alexander the Great to that of Robert Clive. Such historians are almost exclusively from Hinduism's uppermost castes who take a myopic view of conversions from Hinduism. For example, conversions are attributed by them  solely to coercions and compulsions; in doing so, many refuse to acknowledge that the caste system even existed and a significant few deliberately desist from addressing caste atrocities in their writings.   These historians or more appropriately, writers with a historic bent of mind, often fail to comprehend the relation of the caste system to the different forms of Hindu worship and instead, start writing with a presupposed notion that every Hindu worshipped their gods with Sanskrit shlokas and that the Vedic and Puranic texts and the traditional systems of Hindu philosophy such as Advaita were preeminent. I consider it altogether a heinous crime - something that discredits the ageless culture and animistic traditions of India's vast adivasi population or the ecclesiastical independence of the Scheduled castes in prehistoric times. Hinduism is rich as India is, and similarly, diverse. Also while rightwingers challenge the Aryan Invasion Theory despite the weight of contrary evidence, they refuse to concede upon the disputed antiquity of the Vedas and instead, make absurd claims on its inviolability.

The second school of history-writing has been accorded far greater tolerance in intellectual circles and liberally allowed to mould our perceptions of history. But nevertheless, this version of history, too, has been tainted by lack of credibility and an infusion of a narrow-minded political zeal. To the Marxist historian, religion is anathema but Indian Marxists are selectively in bashing Hinduism alone regarding Hindu religious practices as the sole representatives of the basest form of superstition and the Hindu varna system, of the worst form of capitalist tyranny. Blemishes in the religious beliefs of India's minorities are generally overlooked and Marxist historians always commit the grave error of classing all those people among the proletariat. But facts and figures paint a different story and the Mughal Empires and the medieval and post-medieval sultanates were no more the friends of the poor than the Hindu nationalist Marathas. Only a insane person would consider the Nizam of Hyderabad among the poor and oppressed. Similarly, Mughal rule also produced an array of powerful and lecherous Muslim landlords and feudatories who lived off the relentless toil of peasants, both Hindu as well as Muslim. Marxist historians and intellectuals have been blind to atrocities whenever the perpetuator was not a Hindu or a British imperialist. Can anyone forget how in a shameless attempt to court people of a particular community, film maker Shyam Benegal tried to misrepresent the jihadi Fakir of Ipi as a freedom fighter in his film Bose - The Forgotten Hero. Or how Tipu Sultan's biographer Bhagavan S. Gidvani coveniently ignored the Mysore Tiger's numerous well-substantiated acts of religious bigotry while writing his The Sword of Tipu Sultan. Nothing can be far from the truth. It would not be a surprise if these Marxists even try to portray Osama Bin Laden or Mullah Muhammad Omar in a favourable light.  By showing tolerance to the fanatical segments of minority communities, these Marxist historians are succumbing to the bait of communal polarization. Respected historian Irfan Habib who has Marxist sympathies has recently donned the garb of a Tipu Sultan apologist and thus allowed his communal sympathies to come out in the open. The trend is to portray Tipu Sultan as an enlightened and ironically, secular monarch and a gentleman. True, Mysore made vast strides under Tipu Sultan, but it also did under Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV and Sir Mark Cubbon. These historians along with their patrons might possibly have noble intentions but choosing sides would be more detrimental than beneficial in their purported fight against communal polarization.

However, strangely, there is one point on which proponents of both these rival schools of history-writing agree. And that is, on their dislike for Europeans. To the right-winger, a high caste Hindu man can do whatever he wants with an Indian belonging to a downtrodden class whereas an European shouldn't. To the Marxist, the rapacious Afghan or Turkish invader is a friendly insider, while the European is not. Such indoctrinated mindsets require a great deal of cleansing.  And lastly, we have all those sub-national schools of history-writing though which the illusion of an united India is broken to shambles. These regional magnates are fond of exaggerations and through their writings and sayings, lend credence, sometimes unwittingly, to narrow-minded regional chauvinists to whom the extravagant stories painted by these academicians and their downplaying of the roles of other cultures and civilizations is sweet music. In the end, it leads to a lot of name-calling and unpleasantness in online forums.

I've been wanting to write on the politicization of history for quite a long time and I assure you that this is a honest, sincere effort.  The reader might feel compelled to accuse me of promoting a Christian missionary viewpoint but seriously, I am not a supporter of such forces, either. Rather, I take the position of a neutral onlooker when I comment on such things. Bluntly speaking, it is high time caste Hindus stop pretending that all is clean and well with their homes and take steps to  alleviate the pain and inconveniences some Hindu beliefs continue to cause. To fellow historians, I make this humble request - Please don't let your religious or political beliefs prejudice your notions of history or defile your writings.