The study of history is studying the past in terms of the past. It is not importing the past into the present, nor trying to understand the past in the light of the present, as seems to happen when a BJP general secretary talks of Akhand Bharat, a voluntary union of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
But the irony of it has been that the abuse of history started ever since the subject acquired the status of an academic discipline. With it has come ‘politicisation of history’, a way of thinking grafted on to the way the people conceive of themselves as political beings.
The essence of the “politics of history”, as experienced by Indians especially during the past 70 years of independence, has been about conditioning the minds of the present generation either about great achievements of the past or impressing upon them great injustices perpetrated by either colonisers or conquerors. It is for this that elite groups of societies have fought bitter battles on the interpretations of historical events.
Some incidents may be mentioned to substantiate the point. The Congress-led government of Karnataka decided to “celebrate” the greatness of anti-colonial warrior Tipu Sultan and these celebrations were opposed by some Hindu organisations that claimed Tipu had killed Hindus during his rule and ‘celebrating’ his ‘greatness’ was a distortion of history. Not only this. Men of letters, historians and many learned groups in Karnataka held ‘opposite’ positions on the historical evaluation of Tipu, the defenders of the ‘celebrations’ were attacked as ‘Congress intellectuals’ and the opponents were described as ideologues of the Sangh Parivar who were twisting historical facts to communalise Karnataka society. The tragedy of Tipu Sultan has been that various outfits have brought “the past to the present” to serve their present political goals. This is the meaning of the politics of history when events and actors are decontextualised and the events of the past are presented in a caricatured manner to the present generation.
Second, the Ramjanambhoomi movement of 1990 to 1992 and the temple-mosque controversy are another example of history vs politics, because historians and archaeologists had been activated by various facts and groups to provide evidence that Lord Rama was born in Ayodhya and a Ram temple was destroyed by a Muslim ruler to construct a mosque. Evidence by professional historians was ignored and the leaders of the Ram temple movement maintained that the issue was that of the “faith of the Hindus” and here history was made to stand aside before the “faith of the Hindus”.
From this the Sangh Parivar takes a leap to gain political legitimacy and is making every effort to identify itself with nationalist leaders like Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. The need arises because professional historians have argued that the RSS, founded in 1925, had kept itself apart from the anti-British, anti-colonial nationalist liberation movement. Not only this, the Sangh Parivar and the BJP government at the Centre have gone out of their way to identify themselves with BR Ambedkar, who has gone on to occupy the status of an “icon”. A special session of the Lok Sabha was held to commemorate the day when the draft Constitution of independent India was completed under the chairpersonship of Ambedkar.
Historians have their prejudices. IH Qureshi, who used to teach at St Stephen’s College, Delhi, was no doubt a professional historian with some competence. He moved to Pakistan after 1947 and became education minister there. Yet there was a clear bias in his history writing. So was it the case with RC Majumdar, once thought to be one of the greatest historians of the country. But their books have been read by generations of students not to their disadvantage. Why? Because both of them were historians. The problem arises when history becomes a tool in the hands of power and political groups seek ideological legitimacy by presenting their own “side of history”. This can forever leave the task of nation building incomplete.
CP Bhambhri taught politics at JNU
The views expressed are personal