Home Minister Amit Shah’s call to rewrite history isn’t surprising. Each regime seeks legitimacy from the past and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government isn’t an exception. That Mr. Shah added that the rewriting should be from an “Indian perspective” was also politically astute, aimed as it was at creating the impression that the BJP’s world view alone qualifies as “Indian”.
The truth, however, is more complex.
Rewriting of history was creatively attempted long back when Tara Chand sought to counter the colonial attempt to see religious conflict as central to India with a counter-narrative of composite culture. Of course, there were other, conservative, Indian scholars like Jadunath Sarkar and R.C. Majumdar who also sought to write history from “Indian perspectives”.
With Marxist historiography — D.D. Koshambi blazed the trail in the 1950s — becoming part of India’s official history in the 1970s, conservative historians slowly went out of the syllabi of top universities.
What Mr. Shah is seeking now is a fresh meta-narrative to make sense of India’s past in sync with the BJP’s world view.
But the task is easier said than done.
Former Minister for Human Resource Development Murli Manohar Joshi had tried something similar around two decades ago. But, as a professor of physics, he fell into a ‘positivist’ trap, viewing history through the prism of the natural sciences. He, thus, insisted that he was attempting a “rectification” of history, as if there was a “correct” history waiting to be rescued from Marxist historiography. The half-hearted attempt shorn of rigour bore no fruit. For, history writing, as philosophers of history E.H. Carr and R.G. Collingwood have argued, is never “objective”. Mr. Joshi failed to create grounds for a possible, alternative, Hindutva school of history writing. Such a school would have had its own problems — perhaps it would have undermined the role of minorities — but it would at least have offered Hindutva a historiography of its own.
In this sense, Mr. Shah is a step ahead of Mr. Joshi. Yet, there is considerable evidence to say that Hindutva will find it difficult to build an alternative historiography.
To begin with, it has very few people having the competence for such an exercise. There are reasons for this. One, top universities are generally liberal or left spaces, and much talent automatically turns away from Hindutva. Another reason is the very orientation of Hindutva: while leaders emerging from its ideological universe aren’t averse to viewing science, technology and economics through the prism of the global academia, they want to maintain autonomy in the realm of history writing. This may by itself be a laudable principle, but it comes with a serious problem of backward projection of modern science into the ancient past.
With retrospective effect
Much effort is wasted in seeking to make the Indian civilisation look older by somehow trying to push back its antiquity. The endeavour is surprising, as our antiquity isn’t under question. The problem lies in the non-acceptance of Indian knowledge traditions in the wider scheme of world philosophy. This makes a globally accepted, autonomous, Indian epistemological tradition difficult to construct. Talking about ancient aviation on the basis of a suspect ‘Vaimanika Shastra’, reading the Mahabharata and Ramayana literally to allege the presence of modern science in ancient India, or claiming purportedly therapeutic effects in cow urine only take Hindutva voices farther from acceptable academic knowledge. Yet, they stick to these positions and bitterly claim a Western or liberal conspiracy to put them down.
The fact remains that very few in the Hindutva universe are even engaging in academic debates with rigour. Even rejections of Eurocentrism have come more from the likes of Ashis Nandy and T.N. Madan. Mr. Shah talked about the need to know more about the Gupta empire. However, what he is oblivious of is that alternative perspectives do not spring from the projection of one king over another but require a deeper epistemological engagement that proposes new categories for making sense of the world. And these must arise from within Indian traditions, if the alternative claims to be “Indian”. For this, the traditions have to be read anew. And this will happen not by discarding current readings but by transcending them with fresh insights drawn from the vast corpus of Indian traditions.
The BJP has mastered electoral politics but it’s yet to understand the language of academia.
Vikas Pathak teaches at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai