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Rewriting History: Birth of a new School of Thought

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For quite a while now, we have in our midst, a debate which tends to polarise opinions. The popular conscience of the country is demanding a rewriting of our history to ‘correct’ the mistakes of existing history writing while the writers of existing narrative criticise this change with short-sighted arguments; that whatever shall be produced, would be communal in nature. Both the parties have weightage to their arguments, but the solution to this seemingly chaotic question is rather simple – i.e., the birth of a new school of thought.

History study at graduate and post graduate levels follows various schools of thought. In the simplest of terms, it is a specific way in which history is told. At the high school levels, we may suffice with a chronological narration of events, while touching upon a few eminent personalities, but the reading and writing of history becomes much more nuanced when you contextualise and interpret these events. Indian history writing has broadly seen Orientalist, Imperialist, Nationalist, Marxist and recently, Sub-altern historiography.

Politics and Historiography

As much as it is detestable to think that our academics and historical narratives would be influenced by a political party in power, it is the truth at the end of the day. George Orwell in his work 1984 wrote, “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” To presume that the socialist Congress government at the centre for the second half of the 20th Century would have not influenced the Marxist historiography by left–liberal academicians around them is like trying to prove it’s night by covering the Sun with a black cloth.

Therefore, to constructively reach an academic solution, we have to address this academic flaw; accept that our reading of history is never absolute. We have been fed a narrative which picks and chooses which of our freedom fighters to idealise and which to demonise. Afterall, history is written by the victors.

With the BJP at centre, the corridors of power have seen an ideological shift and the echo chamber of the existing left–liberal school of thought has come under stress. During the first term of the Modi Government, there were fears of ‘Saffronisation’ of history – which weren’t without merit – but to some extent were also hyped-up personal fears of an elite class of intellectuals left behind after Congress’ exit from the Raisina Hill. If the Congress couldn’t defeat an opponent in the polls, its sympathising academicians would in the corridors of learning.

What the Left dismisses

The reason why we are seeing such fierce resistance from the Marxist and related historians is because they have, for the first time faced an opposing ideological-political mandate which is here to stay; influencing a differing version of historiography which is quickly gaining popular ground.

The Vajpayee Government was a bit hasty in changing passages and deleting texts from NCERTs. They implemented their view of ‘correct history’ too fast. The succeeding decade of UPA Government and it’s academic echo chamber successfully demonised Vajpayee’s politico-historical narrative of the country as Saffronisation, and reset it to the previously existing one comfortably.

The Modi Government has been careful. The saying in Hindi, “doodh ka jala chaach bhi phook-phook kar peeta hai” (i.e., one who has been burnt once, shall be careful in the future) applies well. During its first term (2014-19), there were minimal rewriting attempts. Instead, the Government waited for the pronunciation of their idea of history from the field of academics itself.

This patience has resulted in sweet fruits in the works of Rajiv Malhotra, Sanjeev Sanyal, Vikram Sampath, Arun Shourie, Meenakshi Jain and the recent bestsellers of J Sai Deepak. The list is long and elaborate when we look back and recognise the creation of the Marxist critique had started in the 2000s itself.

These path breaking works reflect a new ‘Idea of India’ and have created ripples in the civil society. More and more people are lapping up the fallacies of our existing historiography while the Left tries to cover up its mistakes in the broad term of ‘Hindutva Fascism’. The mistakes I speak of are many: mistranslating and misreading Sanskrit sources in ancient Indian history, whitewashing early-medieval invaders by looking at them from a Central-Asian perspective, reading most of medieval Indian history with a Delhi-centric view and thereby ignoring the local kingdoms which resisted or rose in rebellion against the Sultanate-Mughal Imperialism, and the hotly debated Gandhi-centric view of reading modern Indian history.

This current shift is also politically fuelled. With the Prime Minister calling for cultural and civilizational patriotism of the people – to be proud of our 5000 year old heritage as we move towards the Amrit Kaal of our independence – people are looking back to their past, with each region having a different story to tell.

But is there anything wrong with it? Is the history of Vijayanagar Kingdom any less important than that of the Tughlaqs? Is the Ahom experience any less valuable than that of the Mughals? Are not both Aurangzeb and Shivaji etched onto the memory of this land?

The Defending Act

The Left’s logicless fear of Saffronisation has unfortunately led them to choose the defend-mine-dismiss-your strategy. The past couple of years have seen a rather ugly public fallout of a couple of established historians over their branding any criticism as ‘Hindutva Fascism’. This inability to take criticism has also brought to fore the monopoly of Marxist School of Thought in some of our eminent institutions, as much of the critique to their work is coming from researches done by people with STEM backgrounds or those who are not traditional historians.

The Victorious Narrative

As popular historians create history, the voices to rewrite history are creating ripple effects in the civil society. It’s only fair that its representatives must listen. The fruits of patience are sweet indeed. After almost nine years in power, only on 23rd January, 2023 did the Union Education Minister announce their approach of “expanding the canvas” of history. The echoes of Saffronisation did still resound but now, as propaganda, not constructive criticism.

A wary road ahead

The truth is not in the black and white. It’s always somewhere in the muddled grey. As mentioned earlier, the objective history is a narration of facts. Any other contextualisation become a part of a historiography. Similarly, BJP’s version of history may not be absolute either. As the Marxist critique takes shape, students of history must be wary of academic excesses too. We must correct mistakes and bring out the other perspective, but filter out those far-right narratives which tend to sully the true pluralism of this ancient civilization.

Where the Left perspective could have contributed in a wholesome narration, it chose to keep itself far-left. Standing tall with foundational pores in the blowing wind, the current historiography risks breaking its back. To bend, accept positive criticism and course correct may perhaps lead to an amalgamation of Left and Right perspectives of looking at history where they can both act as each other’s checks and balances. But with the current modus operandi, the Left is adamant on their idea of India as ‘correct’ and it is verging on academic arrogance.

With a society as plural as ours, lives as diverse as ours and heritage as rich as ours, there are bound to be rifts in cultural experiences. If one argues that surfacing these cracks in our history may lead to communal tensions, it is only because they are looking at it with a communal lens.

On the other hand, exposing these crevices may be a substantiative way to heal civilizational wounds, address hurting events, painful questions and move towards creating a future where history of this glorious land doesn’t discriminate in representing lived experiences and stories. The truth of Bharat and of its people should never be submerged, lost in translation or told with an agenda, for on this land, it always triumphs.

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