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Sanjeev Sanyal at JLF 2017: Most likely, Asoka remained a mass murderer till end

We need to get the rest of India back into our history. This was the overriding theme during a session at the Jaipur Literature Festival where historian Sanjeev Sanyal stressed on the need to decentre the telling of India’s history from Delhi, and shift the focus to the country’s long maritime history and to empires such as Vijayanagara and the Ahoms.

Jaipur Literature Festival 2017 Updated: Jan 22, 2017 12:12 IST
Dhrubo Jyoti
Dhrubo Jyoti
Hindustan Times
Jaipur Literature Festival,JLF,JLF2017
Historian Sanjeev Sanyal during a session titled The Incredible History of India’s Geography at the Jaipur Literature Festival in Jaipur on Saturday. (Himanshu Vyas/HT Photo)

India’s history is a chronicle of Delhi’s political trajectory; The Aryans invaded India and exterminated its original inhabitants; India is a modern construct created in 1947; Asoka was a pacifist king who created the subcontinent’s greatest empire...

Writer and amateur historian Sanjeev Sanyal thinks every one of these widely held theories are wrong and need to be rubbished if history is to be made interesting for the next generation.

At a session on Saturday, Sanyal stressed on the need to decentre the telling of India’s history from Delhi, with the focus shifting to the country’s long maritime history, and to empires such as Vijayanagara, and the Ahoms. “We have to get the rest of India back into our history,” he said.

Sanyal doesn’t subscribe to other long-held historical ideas either. He isn’t convinced that Asoka had turned pacifist after the war at Kalinga. “Most likely, he remained a mass murderer till the end and the edicts are just propaganda.” He pointed out that none of the inscribed pillars were in present-day Odisha and said for the major part of Indian history, Asoka was seen as a failing emperor whose kingdom had started disintegrating in his lifetime. “His greatness is a 20th century project helped by the British and Nehru,” he added.

He also came out strongly against the argument that the geographical idea of India was a recent phenomena, drawing attention to the mutts Shankaracharya set up in the four corners of the country a millennia ago. “The puranas mention India. The idea that India is modern construct is a colonial echo. Just because there is internal dissent doesn’t mean there isn’t collective identity.”

Sanyal – whose new book The Ocean of Churn talks about the history of India’s coastline and maritime exploration – also junked the argument of an Aryan invasion. “There is just no evidence of an invasion. None of the vedas mention it. By all evidence, the distinction of the Aryan and Dravidian is also false. There has been too much intermixing.”

He drew a parallel between the gentrifying Delhi areas of Hauz khas and Mahipalpur – which have seen rapid development, construction and demographic transformation in the past three decades – with the Harappan city of Dholavira.

“If you ever went to Dholavira, you’d find it marooned in the middle of salt flats in Kutch. Why did anyone bother to build such a city there?” he asked.

“It is because 5,000 years ago, Dholavira was a major port sitting at the estuary of the Saraswati and the Indus. It resembled the Sunderbans. But as the Saraswati dried up and the Indus shifted course, the civilisation became poorer. So 2000 years ago, the grand houses give away to poorer settlements and 300-400 years later, village settlements start appearing. In many ways, it is the reverse of what happened in Delhi,” he said.

Sanyal urged people to see history as not just a political chronicle but as geography and science and based on evidence, much of which, he alleged, had been neglected because of political expediency. “There are 30,000 people in Indonesia who consider themselves Hindus, and think of India as holy land. There is clear connection in culture, currency and even names. We have to acknowledge this.”

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First Published: Jan 22, 2017 12:09 IST