If I were writing a book called India for Idiots I would remind the reader that the Independence movement had, in its initial stage, two cultural-political imperatives. It set out to prove that India had a rich cultural past and a great civilisation which British historians had belittled or distorted.
This entailed the revival of myths, heroes and heroics and in a popularising way the making of films celebrating the return to India of ‘wrangler’ Paranjpe from Cambridge or filming the story of Raja Harishchandra.
The second imperative was to keep the nation together. There was no question in the early nationalist era of dividing the nation on religious lines. The revivalist project, while not being ludicrously untruthful, had to emphasise the unity of India and treat its history as an unfolding drama with the antagonism of the religions attributed to the duplicitous manoeuvring of Europeans.
This last effort is checking the rise of the Hindutva historical enterprise of Dina Nath Batra and Y Sudershan Rao. Batra moves to ban books such as Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History and AK Ramanujan’s Three Hundred Ramayanas. I know the books and if either Doniger or the poet Ramanujan can be described as ‘Marxist’, I can perhaps claim the title of Emperor of China. And as such the first edict I would issue is banning the books of Batra and then coining the original slogan “let a lakh historical flowers bloom”.
To be fair to Messrs Batra and Rao, there is the necessity for a hundred debates about Indian history. Batra contends that school texts give over much attention to Mughal emperors and scant attention to a hero such as Rana Sanga.
This may be true, but Rana Sanga’s cause would be better served by writing a book about his deeds and starting a debate as to his status in history and not by going to court to ban books on Hinduism and stifle free expression.
It is clear now that Messrs Batra and Rao don’t even pretend to be neutral historians in search of the truth.
If one points out that the major surviving works of Hindu scripture, such as the Upanishads, owe their survival, spread and status to the work of European scholars rescuing them from the monopoly ownership of a coterie of Brahmins, I would hear their screams of protest over the black waters in London.
It goes without saying that Batra should be free to be a missionary for whatever cause he chooses, short of stuff that violates the law and attacks the rights of other citizens.
What does need to be said is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi ought not to appoint people who want to stifle discussion to the chairmanship of the Indian Council of Historical Research. It is the sort of appointment that demonstrates that India is not ready for the modern world and not the best contributor to the efforts of universal scholarship.
The project that Rao, Batra and Modi share is that of instituting a new nationalism. Fair enough. That this can entail research into the cruelty of Muslim or Mughal rule in India, pointing to the testimony of Ibn Batuta or the historians who have chronicled the acts of Aurangzeb and his persecution of the Sikhs.
There should be room too for the consequences and cruelties of the caste system imposed by Hindu social structure and perhaps history could point out that Islam has no such dharmic construct and Muslim rule must have brought the concept of equality before God with it.
There is no suppressing nationalist feelings. In a few weeks’ time Scotland will be subject to a referendum which asks if the Scots want to be an independent country. The Kurds are in nationalistic revolt against the regimes of Iraq, Syria and Iran.
In the US, breaking from the nationalism of the Stars and Stripes, the American Dream, Thanksgiving and Apple Pie, the black population claimed respectability for black history and stories of black revolt and heroism.
Historians such as WEB Du Bois and writers such as James Baldwin and Toni Morrison recognised that though their story differed from that of the enslaving races, it was now part of the Western intellectual tradition, to which they belonged.
Debating history is necessary, banning debate is pernicious and cowardly. Batra is and should be free to treat the Ramayan and the Mahabharat as historical record rather than epic myth. When he contends that Bodhayan rather than Pythagoras wrangled the square on the hypotenuse theorem, the burden of proof is upon him and it’s a genuine and exciting matter.
He is free to believe that Ravan controlled and operated a fleet of flying saucers and others are free to characterise such a belief as they will. No harm done.
It’s when a nationalism such as that of Israel claims that the Old Testament has granted them rights to Palestinian land that the contentions of myth become dangerous. Calling them history leads to more deaths of children in the coffin of Gaza. PM sahab, beware!