Battles in history and history-writing

Rewriting India’s history is a worthy cause, but the BJP should not simply replace the wrongs of Marxist historians with its own


Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Winston Churchill once famously quipped that “history will be kind to me, for I intend to write it”. Implicit in his statement was the certitude that those with the privilege of writing history have the first shot at distorting it. And it is often said that the privilege of writing history ends up with the victors. So, who won the 1576 battle of Haldighati between Pratap Singh (better known as Maharana Pratap), ruler of a rump kingdom of Mewar, and the forces of Akbar, the Mughal emperor? The question has gained relevance since three ministers in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government of Rajasthan have backed a proposal to rewrite the history books for university courses. The ministers contend that the textbooks must be changed to reflect that Singh defeated Akbar and not the other way round, as is more widely understood. Not to be left behind, Haryana’s education minister too is keen on making the same changes in his state.

A few weeks ago, again in Rajasthan, some ruffians belonging to the obscure Rajput Karni Sena assaulted film-maker Sanjay Leela Bhansali while he was shooting for his next movie in Jaipur’s Jaigarh Fort. Based on the story of queen Padmavati, a character in Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s epic poem, Bhansali’s movie attracted attention due to the rumour that it shows a romantic dream sequence between the queen of Chittorgarh and Alauddin Khilji, the sultan who ruled Delhi more than two centuries before Akbar. The poem, which most probably is a work of historical fiction—the name Padmavati has no reference in available historical sources—portrays the queen choosing to self-immolate (commit jauhar) rather than become Khilji’s possession. The alleged romantic sequence could not be tolerated by the Rajput Karni Sena, a self-appointed guardian of Rajput honour.

The film’s production house has denied the existence of any such romantic sequence. But that is not the issue here. Bhansali and his crew have the artistic freedom of expression. Even if there was a romantic sequence, no one has the right to assault Bhansali for it. On the other hand, history textbooks in schools and universities are not the arena for freedom of expression. They should be based on evidence—recorded in literature, archaeology or folk memory. And all the available evidence points to Singh’s defeat in Haldighati. At best, some sources which claim that the battle ended without a clear winner could be coughed up. To be sure, Singh was a valiant ruler who would demonstrate steely resolve after his defeat and recapture most of Mewar (except the coveted capital city of Chittor) before dying.

Some have been quick to link this attempt of BJP ministers to the alleged sectarian outlook of the political party. And such charges are inevitable especially if the attempted change has a weak grounding in historical evidence. To be true to history will, however, also require confronting the sectarianism embedded in the famed battle of Haldighati. Most historians have argued that Hindus and Muslims were divided in the battle of Haldighati—Man Singh fought for Akbar and Hakim Sur Afghan fought for Pratap Singh—and hence the battle should not be seen on communal lines. But there was also an Abd-ul-Qadir Bada’uni who fought for Akbar and documented the story of the battle. He records asking his commander Asaf Khan about how to distinguish between friendly and hostile Rajputs. Bada’uni notes Khan’s response: “On whichever side they may be killed, it will be a gain to Islam.” Some historians claim Bada’uni was simply using Khan as a cover for his own bigotry but such a claim is open to contestation.

While the ministers may have chosen the wrong battle, the cause of making amends in India’s Marxist historiography is a worthy one. In their revulsion for alleged nationalist periodization of history into Hindu, Muslim and British phases, Marxist historians built a narrative around social and economic stratification with a special eye on agrarian associations. But in the process they completely lost the religious and cultural aspects of the evolution of Indian civilization.

While the “communal” periodization which the Marxists reviled was pioneered by the British historian James Mill, they were quick to legitimize other colonial precepts like the Aryan invasion theory. There are layers of problems with India’s mainstream history as we know it. A fixation with Delhi has ignored India’s rich maritime culture. The kingdoms of north India have gotten more attention than those in the south. The Marathas have been given short shrift in favour of the Mughals. On a micro level, as the author Sanjeev Sanyal has documented, the great achievements of individuals like Marthanda Varma, who defeated the Dutch forces, and Lachit Borphukan, who vanquished Aurangzeb’s mighty army, have been almost completely obliterated.

Clearly, some rewriting is required. Equally clearly—for history is a core component of identity for communities and nations alike—rewriting will be a contentious project. BJP leaders replacing the wrongs of Marxist historians with their own would be exactly the wrong way to go about it. Attempts like the one in Rajasthan will discredit the project beyond rescue.

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