Cultural Fascism


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‘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.

Yes, 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.

But for 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.

Insofar 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.

So 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.

History, 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?

Thus 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.

Certainly, 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.

The 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.

What a 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.


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Last updated: January 17, 2001 .