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Mathew John & Annie Mathew Mathew John & Annie Mathew
25 Mar 2024

The supreme iconoclast, Howard Zinn, observed that there is no such thing as impartial history. Even the most conscientious historians are partial in two ways; they pick and choose from the bewildering array of happenings from the past, and their interpretation is influenced by their worldview and the times they live in. Yet no serious historian will disagree that the sanctity of facts is fundamental to any historical endeavour. The first commandment for any student of history is to say it like it is, to distinguish between established fact and fiction. Arguably, the greatest historian of our age, Eric Hobsbawm, put it blandly: "Without the distinction of what is and what is not so, there can be no history."

The other pitfall to watch out for is what Hobsbawm calls "the politico-ideological abuse of history", the warped nationalist version that is nothing short of a bastardisation of history based on myth, omission, decontextualisation and lies, with the past serving as handmaid to legitimise and validate extreme right-wing ideologies.

Historical research and writing have hitherto worked in the shadows, perceived as a relatively benign scholarly activity far removed from the hurly-burly of politics. But today, the past is being invoked as a grist for nationalist and fundamental ideologies just "as poppies are the raw material for heroin addicts." What's being peddled is propaganda, not history. The autocrats of our present-day world seem to draw inspiration from George Orwell's dark hypothesis: "Those who control the present control the past, and those who control the past, control the future."

There is now direct, unabashed political engagement with historiography. For the cynical fantasy historians of the present regime, their ideology of exclusivity is immutable; history must be recalibrated to correspond with their beliefs and socio-political agenda and to hell with facts. According to a 2018 Reuters report, this government has appointed a committee of scholars whose mandate is to harness evidence in the form of archaeological evidence and DNA to prove that Hindus are the original inhabitants of this land, that the Hindu scriptures are facts and not myth, that there is a foundational animus between Hindu and Muslim.

The project – mischievous to the extreme - aims to debunk the authenticated hopeful, humane narrative of a multicultural ethos germinated in migrations, invasions and conversions. The frightful objective of the exercise is to justify the ideological fascism of Hindutva that demonises minorities and consigns them to the margins as enemies of the nation. The cultural erasure of minorities is now State policy.

Prejudice masquerading as history has a lot of traction today. George Orwell, who had studied the innards of nationalism and its extreme manifestation – fascism – believed that the nationalist is "haunted by the belief that the past can be altered" and so rewrites history that is "plain forgery".

Authoritarian leaders across the world have been presiding over the calculated desecration of history. As the US President, Donald Trump, who never tired of excoriating academia for highlighting slavery and racism in school texts, set up a fresh 1776 Commission to "promote patriotic education" with the intent of rewriting history to suit the purposes of his right-wing, racist constituency. The Commission submitted its report – chockful of falsehoods and partisan politics – two days before the end of Trump's term in 2020. Thankfully, neither the Commission nor its mischievous historical fiction survived his Presidency.

We have not been so lucky. The jaundiced worldview of the hyper-nationalists wielding political power has muscled its way into education and school textbooks, poisoning the minds of the most vulnerable.

Adopting the laziest and crudest form of falsification, the NCERT (National Council for Education Research and Training) has vandalised the history syllabus of schools by blanking out large parts of "Muslim history", the Gujarat massacre of 2002 and anything inimical to the Hindutva view of history. The BJP-ruled states have also gotten into revising history texts, sometimes with the most comical outcomes. During BJP rule in Karnataka, history textbooks were revised and glorified Savarkar, stating, inter alia, the tripe that during his incarceration in the Cellular jail, "bulbul birds used to visit the room and Savarkar used to sit on their wings and fly out and visit the motherland every day." The irrepressible Aakar Patel said it for us when he wryly tweeted: "Always knew he was a lightweight."

What's truly scandalous is the willingness of the scientific community to actively abet this multipronged assault on our history. However, its shameless embrace of this regime's ludicrous claims about our ancient past has severely damaged its credibility. During the 106th session of the Indian Science Congress in 2019, presided over by the country's PM, the most bizarre claims were made about our ancient past – that India was making test-tube babies and familiar with plastic surgery thousands of years ago; ancient India was familiar with internet and nuclear weapons; India has given the world the Pythagoras's theorem; there were planes in the Vedic age that journeyed across planets. Is it a coincidence that in Orwell's surreal tale of totalitarianism, Nineteen Eighty-four, there is this postulation: "The Party's history books claimed that the Party had invented aeroplanes."?

Can the judiciary be far behind in today's India of oppressive iniquity? The Supreme Court's tacit endorsement of this regime's erasure of relics relating to inconvenient facets of history is evident in its shocking verdict of July 2020 on petitions seeking protection of ancient remains and artefacts recovered during the excavation of the Ram Janmabhoomi site for the construction of the Ram Temple. In a striking example of the highest court abetting "spoliation of evidence", an eminently reasonable plea for conserving relics found at the historically contentious archaeological site – a routine, indispensable exercise for a country that values its cultural heritage – was dismissed as "absolutely frivolous". The three-judge bench headed by who else but Arun Mishra, of sycophantic "thinking globally but acting locally" fame, pulled up and imposed costs on the petitioners for questioning, by inference, the bizarre 2019 SC Ayodhya Ram Janmabhoomi verdict which privileged faith over the law, even implying that the Ayodhya judgement cannot be questioned even in its historical context.

The ongoing root-and-branch cooking and rewriting of our history, the forced imposition of a dubious Hindu nationalist narrative into our understanding of the past, could not have been possible without the imprimatur of PM Modi, the all-powerful talisman of Hindutva. A post-graduate in "Entire Political Science", he has mastered the high-sounding rhetoric of grievance, decolonisation and democratisation to denigrate "elitist" and "leftist" dominance of historiography.

In March 2021, at a function commemorating the Dalit chieftain Maharaj Suheldev, the PM lashed out at the distortions perpetrated by those who enslaved the country and the elitist colonised minds who have since dominated the historical discourse. He bemoaned the neglect of heroes who dedicated their lives to the protection of "Bharatiyata", which essentially is Hindutva without its abrasive resonance.

Ironically, his polemic is an appropriated perversion of Ranajit Guha's exposition on colonial expropriation of our history that has largely ignored the subaltern perspective, i.e. the commoner. The essential difference is that Modi's alternate "guaranteed" history seeks to validate an exclusive, sectarian Hindu ethos and culture that erases or belittles anything Muslim, a blasphemous distortion that would make Guha turn in his grave. Leaving no doubt about his government's intentions of rewriting history, the PM declared that "the injustice and tampering (of history) done hitherto is being rectified today."

Regarding historical misrepresentation by this regime, one cannot ignore the PM's ahistorical denigration of Pandit Nehru's role in the contentious Kashmir issue. Modi and his ilk peddle the cock and bull story that whereas Sardar Patel deftly manoeuvred the merger of the princely states, Nehru botched the handling of Kashmir by agreeing to a plebiscite and the enactment of Article 370, a troublesome burden that Modi finally resolved. To quote his braggadocio in 2022: "As I am following the footsteps of Sardar Saheb, …. I resolved the problem of Kashmir and paid true tributes to Sardar Patel."

Rajmohan Gandhi, arguably our finest historian on the Independence movement, has clinically torn apart the specious argument that Sardar Patel would have ensured the transfer of Kashmir in its entirety to India but for Nehru's pusillanimity. The historical record notes that Sardar Patel had come to terms with Kashmir being handed over to Pakistan until September 1947, when Junagarh announced its accession to Pakistan.

Let's not forget that by the logic of Partition, the Kashmir valley abutting Pakistan and with an overwhelmingly Muslim population (93%) should logically have gone to Pakistan. As MJ Akbar reveals in his brilliant biography of Nehru, the first PM's unwavering determination to hold on to Kashmir was why we got Kashmir, despite the inclination of the British to favour Pakistan. According to Mountbatten, Kashmir was a "pathological" obsession for Nehru, whose friendship with Mountbatten and Sheikh Abdullah ensured that India's claim to Kashmir prevailed against all odds.

Nehru's detractors lament that when the Indian army, having driven out the Pathan raiders, was poised to occupy POK and settle the Kashmir issue once and for all, Nehru's meek acceptance of a plebiscite is solely responsible for all the festering problems of Kashmir since then. The trouble with hindsight is that it exaggerates and embellishes the missed opportunity and downplays the difficulties faced.

Critics forget that the crisis in Kashmir was happening in the wake of the most unspeakable inhumanity and crazed religious frenzy on either side of the border. Up to 2 million men, women and children were butchered, and 20 million were displaced in the holocaust of Partition. At such a grim time, it would have been suicidal to embark on a full-scale war with Pakistan, which would have further inflamed communal passions. Sadly, in today's India, the bigoted narrative of Nehru's critics holds sway!

We are in the grip of a majoritarian nationalist government that is hell-bent on tearing apart the idea of India conceived by our founding fathers. Having co-opted most institutions of governance, it is perilously close to achieving its ultimate objective of a Hindu Rashtra. The brazen falsification of history is a crucial element in this diabolical project. Trapped in this oppressive social milieu, we need to heed Orwell's warning: "The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history." Only a change of regime in June 2024 can pull us back from the brink!

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