The Perils And Pitfalls of Indian History

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History,” Voltaire once wrote, “is a pack of tricks we play upon the dead.” Marx reaffirmed that the tradition of the dead generation weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And, just when they are in the revolutionary transformation of themselves. . . they timidly conjure up the spirits of the past to help them, they borrow their names, slogans and costumes so as to stage the new world historical scene in this venerable disguise and borrowed language.”

The Indian recipe for history is to begin with a myth, a spoonful or two of bits and pieces of historical facts (picking up the desired ones only), steep them in folklore and allow it to simmer until it reaches boiling point.

This is the potent drink with a fairly good market, which believes in anything, and everything. Once said, it is believed and the belief is such that people may not cremate the dead for two months in the belief that the dead man is still alive but meditating, while the body in fact is decomposing.

Under the shade of such a market, there is no dearth of merchandise, as long as the marketing strategy is intact. One shouldn’t be surprised if an attempt is made to unnerve Sri Lanka one day on the simple belief that the Sri Lanka of today was precisely the place reached by legendary Ram in order to defeat Ravana. The Indian marketing strategy should deem it proper to demand that Sri Lanka be taken away from the Buddhists and given to the harbingers of Rama.

Taj Mahal has always fascinated millions, including me. Few years back, I was there admiring its beauty when I witnessed a group of holy men (holy because their skulls were shaven, they wore loin cloth and thus I presume they had renounced the world) chanting slogans in Sanskrit and attempting to place a flame on the grave of Shah Jehan, the builder of the Taj.

The Sadhus were a part of the unruly mob, which had burst into the monument wishing to capture and convert it into a temple. Armed soldiers with rapid fire guns testified to the tension. The monument of peace and love that has stood for centuries and attracted millions of visitors from all corners of the world is now under attack by the bunch who have read history emanating from the Indian shelf that it was a Hindu monument and therefore, it should be converted.

It is a moot point, as the why the Bharatiya Janta Party should have to write a new history to call Hindutva’s forces to arms. Surely its complaints about minority appeasement and live issue-anti-national tendencies, aggressions at all time, temple destroyers – should be enough to rally its votaries. The past is a powerful persuader of the righteousness of present action.

Political movements have long understood the utility of harnessing knowledge to their causes. One of the easiest ways is to appropriate the past — rewrite history. 

Stalin was successful in erasing Leon Trotsky from the annals of Russian Revolution. The Britishers insidiously divided the Indian Hindus and Muslims by introducing text books that advocated the idea that Hindus and Muslims had never lived amicably together.

The teaching of history can often become a very political affair, especially when an attempt is made to impose it by those in power. The withdrawal of textbooks prescribed by the former Bharatiya Janata Party state government is just an example in the continuing debate over how children ought to learn about India’s past. 

Gross factual distortion is a matter of great concern. Apolitical howlers are as amusing as they are misleading. One such text claims that Samudragupta built the Qutab Minar ! If communal tensions are to become a part of India’s past, unprejudiced schooling is something very essential. Since in most Indian schools history is learnt by rote and such biased stories get firmly imprinted in the child’s mind. 

At the close of Muslim rule, India was rich and tempting enough to invite Europeans and by the time the English chapter closed, India was sucked dry. A layman’s comparison of Turkish and English rule will dispell the erroneous belief circulated in Indian history. Even Mahatma Gandhi used to say that the British had exploited and hurt India more than the Muslim rulers. But why the change in perception today ? The Britishers are revered as the builders of Modern India, while the chief architects to lay the groundwork were the Turks. 

Though the Turks were foreigners, after a generation or two they were quite Indianised. Not so with the British. The Turkish period witnessed more wars, but the wealth remained in India. Not so with the British. In fact it was the Indian wealth that paved way for the Industrial Revolution in England.

Unfortunately, the scenario is quite different in the history texts. The Ayodhya issue to today was historically solved and settled more than a decade ago. Extensive excavations were carried out at Ayodhya, specifically to examine the Rama legend, but Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) site observation notebook drew a blank. No antiquities pointing to such a temple were listed. The ASI, the government, the press, educational institutions, maintained a stony silence and for more than ten years nothing appeared in the ASI reports. A diabolical silence indeed !

The scholars have brought to light Buddhist monasteries at Ayodhya that far outnumbered the Brahmanical structures at Ayodhya in the seventh century. 

However, what did strike a layman was the presence of pillars in the Babri Mosque with non-Islamic motiffs. This was not a unique feature. In the first place none of the motiffs championed the cause of Rama or Vishnu iconography. Second, a salient feature of medieval buildings was to make use of elements from other structures, collected from far and near. Did Shah Jehan not plunder the remains of Tuhglaqabad Fort in order to collect materials for Shahjehanabad ? Abdur Rahim Khane Khana’s tomb is denuded today. The entire stones were used in the make up of Safdarjung’s tomb. The most spectacular example is the Bhaskereshwara Temple in Orissa with a peculiar curvilinear tower. A pity that a pillar carrying the peaceful message of Ashoka was chiselled to make way for a huge linga and in order to incorporate this, the temple architecture had to be altered. By the logic of returns the Buddists can claim it outright. History is replete with such instances, but why to boil down on a particular cast, that too steeped in legends and myths.

The VHP through manipulation of historical research, in pursuance of its claim, has done a commendable job. Now members of the Bajrang Dal claim that they know the precise birth spot of Krishna that lies beneath the Idgah at Varanasi !

On the question of Ram temple, it seems that Ram has been monopolised by the Hindi speaking belt of North India. As regards its history the BJP leaders till recently were not even sure about the spot where Ram was born. Atal Behari Vajpayee had admitted this as early as May 17, 1989. More significantly, Advani himself was reported to have said in Bombay, “No one can prove that it (Babri Masjid) was the birth place of Shri Ram, but he could not wait for the court verdict as he felt it was a matter of belief. Likewise the Vishwa Hindu Parishad was shy of committing itself to court verdict.

And what are the credentials of the VHP, whose leaders had signed an agreement with Home Minister, Buta Singh, specifically promising to abide by the court verdict. 

A study of the Hindu history reveals that the temple worship was an alien of practice. None of the scriptures refer to them or lay on Hindus the duty of going to temple for worship of an image.

Mahabharata makes no mention of temple nor the word “Ayodhya” comes anywhere .It was more of a borrowed phenomenon from the practice of kins that people started going to temples to look at the image of diving potentate and to watch the ceremonials of his daily life, which were modelled on those of a king. 

It is must unfortunate that at the heart of the problem of India today, lies a history with various twists and turns. It is reasonable to ask if the Indian historian is going to allow his discipline to be wielded like a weapon in racial, communal, class or caste wars ? It is time for them to realise and take on the role of mentors of a misguided and misinformed nation.

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