History is a minefield about the past which influences our present and shapes our future. There is recorded history, emerging versions of the recorded, oral histories that lie outside the recorded, memorialising of individuals that contest or clarify records, mythology and folklore that are often confused for history, and more. Then there are questions about who did the documentation or recording in the past, under what kind of a political regime or social atmosphere, and how well-developed historiographical knowledge and methods were that influenced the records and their telling. There’s also the difference between the rigorous discipline of academic history and the less academic popular narrative that passes off as history. Often, the two do not converge at all. What is accepted without debate is that the discipline of history encompasses revisitations, revisions, and interpretations of both the recorded and unrecorded. A revision or reinterpretation does not damage it, what does is, erasure. Recent years have seen contestations and re-interpretations of India’s history in ways that had not happened since Independence. This has to do with the dominance of right-wing Hindutva politics. We are at a juncture where the very idea of India – subsuming the historical past and encompassing multicultural diversity in national unity – is now deemed unworthy and is sought to be replaced by ‘Bharatvarsha’. We are at a juncture where academic work in history has increasingly less bearing or influence on its popular or politically-influenced narratives, where historians are reviled if their assertions do not fit the popular narrative forcing many to retreat into their tomes. To this, add the fantastical or fake narratives of the past that pass for historical knowledge daily on the infamous ‘WhatsApp university’, assertions as truth in cases being heard in courts on historical sites and personalities, and the shrill political nature of history debates in the mainstream media – in the chaos and confusion, people believe what they want to.
The Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court seems acutely aware of the hazards of venturing into the minefield. It rejected a plea this week to inquire into the history of the Taj Mahal saying that it was not for a court of law to probe the monument’s antecedents or what its 22 rooms hold, and that as judges they were not trained or equipped to deal with it from a historical perspective. This ran counter to the popular narrative taking shape in the public domain that the Taj Mahal was actually the temple Tejo Mahalaya standing on land that belonged to a kingdom of present-day Rajasthan. An heir of the royal dynasty, also the ruling party’s MP from the region, projected this belief as history. In another court, stood parties opposing each other on the status of the Gyanvapi mosque which, litigants claimed was built over a razed temple in 1669 by Mughal invaders, and sought access to worship the idols. The case had grown cold in the courts but has been cynically revived to feed into majoritarian politics now. This has all the makings of a manufactured furore like the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid row. The juggernaut of raking up historical wrongs is unlikely to stop here. The worldview of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, informed by its ideological fountainhead Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, is that the Indian nation-state moulded in 1947 is an anomaly and deserves to be ‘corrected’. A RSS outfit is on the mammoth job; a torch-bearing historian of the right-wing recently stated history will be written “the way we want, finally”.
The revisitation or revision underway is not because there is new information about the old or academic grounds to make history comprehensive. Instead, it is to rewrite history of ancient and medieval era, of conquests and colonisers, of the freedom struggle and the partition, of Independent India with the sole purpose of establishing the supremacy of Hindu religion and culture – by villainising Mughals and today’s Muslims. History is the instrument to establish that India was eternally Hindu. It is not unique to Hindu right-wing revisionists; to wipe out the past in order to establish supremacy is a leitmotif that runs through Afghanistan, Pakistan, the United States – where teaching race history in schools has become contentious – and closer home in Kashmir where its pre-Islamic history is sought to be erased. History feeds into politics and politics rewrites history. So textbooks taught in schools are changed to reflect the political conceptualisation of the past, the media pick up on the popular narratives of historical events and figures which help to crystallise biased reinterpretations in people’s minds, multiple versions of histories are told in local languages without nuance or rigour used by professional historians, all seeking “their legitimacy in the domain of the popular” to use words of one of India’s best-known historians Partha Chatterjee. In popular history, chronology and accuracy are discounted at the altar of belief and bias. If recorded academic history does not fit the latter, then it is fit to be rewritten. This is a dangerous slope; it may well lead to a telling of history in which the RSS, happy to largely stay out of India’s freedom movement, will be made its main protagonist. Historians now have no choice but to join the political debate, else they risk being undermined by populism.
This article first appeared on freepressjournal.in