Distortion of History (from The Hindu)

Madhav Deshpande mmdesh at umich.edu
Thu Jan 9 12:13:22 UTC 1997

Dear Indologists,
	Here is a recent article from The Hindu of Madras which may give
us some insight into the current politics of history in India.  It is a
somewhat long piece, but I think it offers a very important analysis of
the current politicization of history in India. 

			Madhav Deshpande

`Distortion of history'  From The Hindu, Madras:

               Date: 08-01-1997 :: Pg: 12 ::
               Col: c 

               By V. Krishna Ananth 

               Historical linguistics, inscriptions
               and the canons of
               archaeological excavations
               mean nothing to our friends in
               the VHP and the only thing that
               matters to them is working up
               religious sentiment. 

               AS the nation is preparing itself to observe 50 years of
independence, the polity is facing serious challenges and history is
sought to be distorted for sectarian purposes. Some of the established
canons of historical research are defied and nationalism is sought to be
defined in a different fashion. 
               Prof. Irfan Habib, eminent historian, who was in Chennai to
attend the Indian History Congress session two weeks ago spoke to this
writer on these and related issues. Excerpts from the interview: 

               VKA: How do you place history as a discipline in the
current political situation? 

               Prof. Irfan Habib: In the prevailing political situation,
the most important impact on history as I see it is the tendency to look
differently at the various aspects of the national movement. While many
critics of the national movement are now beginning to modify their
criticism, there are others who accentuate it in the light of a growing
perception among a large number of politicians, intellectuals and middle
classes, if not among the masses, of India as belonging predominantly to a
single cultural tradition rather being a multi-cultural country. So one
begins to look at the national movement, how it handled this particular
problem and many things that some of us took for granted now look as
achievements. This is one example of how history is looked at differently.
Another aspect is how our perception of history influences our present
context. I would stress that the perception of history that was handed
over to us would create a particular mind and generate a particular type
of political action.

               Could you specify this? 

               As an extreme example, I would like to cite the rise of the
Nazis, of how a particular perception of history held by a respectable
section of the German intelligentsia that the Prussian state was a unique
creation in history and a unique creation of German people and that there
was something sacred in the state and therefore of a German mission
particularl represented by the Prussian state to defend and enlarge
certain values. This perception was not racist at least outwardly and
certainly was not anti-Jewish. But how easily was this perception utilised
by the Nazis? 

               You mean to say that those who perceived thus were innocent
of the Nazi worldview of themselves? 

               Yes. When they were saying so, they would not have dreamt,
at least most of them, that this would happen; say, the most extreme of
them, Spengler; Hitler actually visited him after getting to power. But
when Hitler started persecuting the Jews, Spengler said, this is not what
I intended, not such a foolish theory of German state and his statement
was not printed and he died unrecognised by the Nazis. So, here you have
an example of how a historical theory is created by someone who had no
idea of what use it can be put to.

               Is it your view that those who hold the theory of Aryan
supremacy and seek to go back to the ``golden age'' of our past are not
conscious of the implications of this theory? 

               Before 1947 the idea that the Aryans went out of India was
hardly espoused by any serious historian, not even by a serious
nationalist. Tilak, who would come close to such an idea, was claiming
that the Aryans had come from the Arctic; in other words, the pure white
race and Indians represent the pure white race. He never argued that we
(Aryans) went out of India. But now, while some people deny that they
espouse the Nazi race theory, they in fact have espoused it; the
perception is that of the Aryan race which is anti-Dravidian and in effect
denies any separate family of Dravidian family of languages, which is
against all developed canons of scientific linguistics.

               So what in your opinion is the guiding force behind such
contentions being made? 

               This is part of an effort to modernise India's cultural
tradition. There was never a view in India, even in medieval times, of a
monolithic culture. The present view that the Indian cultural tradition
was monolithic is certainl modern. We are reading modern morals and values
and the modern tests of superiority. This feature is not unique to India;
this is being done for Islam also, reading into Islam a kind of
uniformity, a worldly life which could not have been conceived of by its
earlier practitioners who regarded Islam as a religion where reward is to
be expected after life whereas the world has its own compromises. In other
words, Islam is being similarly interpreted that it is a modern
civilisation that it has modern values. One is reading equality in areas
where it did not exist or one is trying to justify the modern concept of
inequity and religious sentiments are brought into play here. 

               What role do you accord for religion in history? 

               Religion definitely has an important place in the
historical process. But religious people should not deny that history has
played an important role in changing religion. Here I am talking about the
process where words remained the same in the scriptures but their meanings

               You mean to say that there is a legitimate role for
religion in the exercise of historical interpretations? 

               Originally it was there in the nationalist exercise and it
was a rational one; of coming to terms with religion. For instance, Syed
Ahmed Khan said that there is no one absolute interpretation of the Quran
and that every generation should interpret the Quran from the contemporary
perspective; I am friendly to this approach since it appears very
modernist and bold. I see its importance because people are very religious
and Syed Ahmed Khan was trying to win them over to science. But it has
this danger that if the Quran is so relevant to whatever you do, then the
historical Quran becomes relevant to your present. This problem of dealing
with religion and conceding that religion can influence current life opens
the doors to the kind of revivalist thinking just as it opened to
scientific interpretation.

               This is what is happening in India today and in a sense it
is not unique to India. The VHP and the Muslim fundamentalists may think
that theirs is unique but they are actually a production of modern values,
modern conditions of life interacting with religion and that provides its
ideology.  Now every ideology has uses for various classes.  An ideology
is its own motor power and once created motivates men to do it. It
operates under particular circumstances. In India, we can say that the
conditions were created due to our failure to go along with the vision of
the Karachi resolution. The limitations in implementing them and the fact
that it began to falter since the Seventies deprived Indians of the
self-confidence in themselves as a modern nation which the national
movement had given.

               So what in your opinion should be the bottom line of
historical research? 

               Just as an impartial judge must be bound by the law and his
perception must be based on the law, a historian cannot be partial on his
premises. There are two aspects to this; one is the technical aspect of
history particularly that of testing of evidence. This applies to
everyone. To that extent, even a communal historian like R. C. Majumdar
was very much annoyed when the RSS promoted a theory that the great Delhi
and Agra monuments were built by Hindu rulers: He wrote to them saying
that since they had given space to such nonsense he was not going to
contribute to The Organiser. I respect this stand. What I mean to say is
that the sanctity of technical aspects of history must be respected by all
historians. Historical linguistics, inscriptions and the canons of
archaeological excavations mean nothing to our friends in the VHP and the
only thing that matters to them is working up religious sentiment.

               Why is this shift in priorities gaining ground? 

               One factor is that the nationalist tradition and the
historiography handed over by it is running out of steam; not because the
evidence has changed but because the environment today dislikes ideals.
When ideals do not matter then many aspects which we thought were accepted
premises of scientific history, as for instance, hatred against poverty
are no longer guiding intellectual thought. You can now look at them
clinically or not look at them at all. Well, I would say that the
religious cults are trying to occupy the political space increasingly and
are being confronted by some values of the nationalist movement already
there in the popular consciousness. 

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