‘Sangh’ Combine are out to transform popular understandings of Indian history
By Achin Vanaik
Let no one be
in any doubt. The Sangh Combine today are out to transform popular
understandings of Indian history by changing the content and manner of history
teaching at the level of schools and colleges so as to accord with their own
Hindutva version of that history. Unfortunately, not only the Sangh, but
disturbingly large sections of the Indian elite think they are justified in
doing so. In this context a crucial question is raised. Can history writing,
research, understanding and teaching be separated from the passions of politics?
This can only be answered by both a yes and a no.
there is such a thing as truer histories subject to the controls of evidence and
therefore different from myths, untruths, half-truths and "feel good"
nationalist accounts of what happened in the past. Indeed, when early
nationalist passions die down there can be greater scope for more subtle and
accurate understandings of history regardless of how it affects the inescapable
inventions and myths of nationalist self-image. Nationalism, after all, is
"getting history wrong" at least some of the time. Something like this
is now happening in Ireland where neither British colonialist paternalism nor an
aggressive Republicanist political counter to it are seen as guiding frameworks
for the new histories that are being researched or written.
this to happen, a country’s nationalism has to become more relaxed, mature and
confident—everything, in fact, that is not happening in India. Here, fifty
years after Independence, the elite, (from whose ranks emerge those most
concerned with writing, reading, arguing about, and teaching history) is more
insecure, frustrated, aggressive than ever before. It is an elite disappointed
by the past, disappointed by the present, and uncertain about the future. It is
an elite that is suffering something of a collective identity crisis and thus
more open than ever to the seductions of a history that is being reshaped
according to the passions of a particular kind of identity politics.
as history is always a dialogue between the present and the past, there is no
way that it can be immune from the politics and preocupations of the present.
Thus new questions are constantly being posed and new histories being written to
highlight new ways in which the past and present are connected. This is not in
itself undesirable provided the purpose remains the writing and understanding of
real histories—of correcting older weaknesses and biases, of exploring
hitherto unexplored terrains, of making better use of older or newer source
materials, etc. There is always an instrumentalist dimension to history writing
and teaching connected to the politics of the present. But a history-telling
that is effectively reduced to such instrumentalism as its primary purpose
(which is the goal of the Sangh) is no longer meaningful history though it can
certainly be meaningful politics.
history writing and teaching may not be separable from the passions of politics
at any given time but this must not be made into an excuse either for relativism
in history (anything goes) or myth-making as history. What must also be taken
into account when assessing alternative historical approaches is also what kind
of politics and what kind of passions inform these explorations, and how
compatible they are with the search for better, deeper and wider histories.
Decent and more humane political passions will clearly tend to promote more
decent and humane kinds of historical explorations. The passions unleashed by
Hindutva are anything but humane or decent.
said Brecht, is unpredictable not because there are no determinations but
because there are too many. It is the complexity of human history that must be
better grasped if better histories are to be written, a complexity which in
recent centuries has exponentially increased! The Sangh’s Hindutva notion of
history has utter contempt for any such approach. It attempts to justify its
project not on the grounds of being able to provide better or truer histories
but by declaring that other, secular histories were themselves politically
motivated. The claim then, is that the larger and long term failure of that
older political project known as Nehruvianism also invalidates the history
writing of those times. Just as politically, the Sangh argues, it is necessary
to try something new rather than old secular Nehruvianism, historiographically
they exclaim, what is wrong with adopting something new as well?
time and again the refrain one hears in the public media is that there was
biased history writing in the past so whatever one’s criticisms of what the
Sangh are upto, others were just as bad, if not worse. The favourite whipping
boys are of course, the Marxists. Insofar as Indian history writing was
influenced by the temper and politics of the National Movement it was
predominantly a strong centre-left Congress interpretation of modern Indian
history and of the composite character of Indian culture and society that held
the fulcrum, though never the full spectrum. Marxists who were pro-Congress were
never that many and their influence was grossly exaggerated. But in these
anti-socialist and anti-Marxist times nothing sells better than such attacks on
the intellectual or political left.
Marxism has had considerable influence on history writing and understanding,
much more so than Marxists. For it has not been difficult for many a non-Marxist
historian to recognise the important value and power that various insights
originating in, or emphasised by, the Marxist tradition, has had for the
historian’s craft in general. In this respect, mid-twentieth century history
writing in India was no different from what was happening worldwide except,
ironically, in countries ruled by regimes claiming to be Marxist. Here, too much
of history writing foreshadowed what the Sangh today wants and promotes—a
shameful instrumentalism in which scientific endeavour, objectivity and truth
were firmly subordinated to ideology. What Marxist influence did was to bring in
the study of the structures of everyday life, of the material conditions of
existence, of ordinary human beings to the very forestage of history writing,
understanding and teaching displacing the kind of histories that dominated till
late into the nineteenth and early twentieth century. These were political
narratives centred on ‘great leaders’, and religious-cultural-ideational
narratives that talked of enduring mentalities, and so on. The positive impact
has been enormous and enduring. Great macro-histories (and many a micro-one) can
no longer be written without paying some kind of debt to Marx and Marxism even
though it no longer seems a debt, only common sense.
passion of politics of pre-and post-independence India was not only different
from the India of today, it was also far more progressive as compared to the
colonial past. It is hardly surprising then that the histories of India
subsequently produced, for all their pro-Congress or nationalist biases and
weaknesses, were far superior in range, depth and quality. This was particularly
evident in political, social and economic histories of various kinds. The rise
of new kinds of writing and research on ‘history from below’ as embodied in
the best of Subaltern Studies represented further progress in Indian
historiography. The one third world country of which the accusation of a
Western-colonial or Macaulyian historical mind-set is most off the mark, is in
fact India, precisely because it had the sustained and powerful National
Movement that it did.
great tragedy it is that instead of seeking to transcend the limitations of that
nationalism as it affected the historian’s craft, the Sangh today is aiming to
reinforce its most central weakness. This was always in the domain of cultural
histories where elite nationalism from the mid-nineteenth century was decisively
influenced by a "reversed Orientalism" that today finds its strongest
expression in a Hindutva-Brahminical view of Hinduism, Indian society and
cultural nationalism. Today’s intellectual inheritors of Western paternalism
in historical research, understanding and writing are, in fact, the loyalists of
the Sangh Combine. The irony could hardly be sharper.