Narendra Modi has unleashed a firestorm of criticism for his recent suggestions that, for instance, Sardar Patel might have made a better prime minister than Pandit Nehru or that Congress leaders bear responsibility for the partition of undivided India.
Nugatory factual lapses and his fixation on large-scale statuary aside, Modi’s interrogation of the received, hegemonic narrative that has been promulgated by the Congress is a welcome development—whether or not one agrees with his particular reinterpretation of our ancient or recent history.
For too long in India, we have been schooled to accept the notion that there is one “true” history of our independence struggle and our post-independence journey, to say nothing of our classical or medieval history. This orthodox narrative gives primacy to the role of the Congress and the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty in particular, while at the same time it subordinates other dissenting and competing narratives.
On this “official” reading of history, there is a certain inevitability to the partition of India, the rise of Nehru, and the evolution of independent India as a state committed to socialist planning at home and a vague but well-intentioned policy of non-alignment abroad.
The reactions of Congress party acolytes to Modi disturbing the unruffled, serene waters of this official narrative betrays not just sycophantic dismay, but a profound failure to understand what history is, and is not.
We have inherited a Victorian conception of history, foisted upon us by our colonizers, that the telling of history consists of uncovering certain “truths”, that these truths in turn are based upon uncontested facts, and that these may thus be woven into the tapestry of a tale whose veracity cannot be questioned without appearing to be either retrograde or revolutionary.
Modern scholarship (including, ironically, fine work by British post-colonial theorists) turns this view on its head. History is, rather, the telling of a story, the creation of a narrative, which involves the careful selection of facts one deems pertinent and an argument (explicit or implicit) about the causal relationships that bind those facts together into a compelling tale.
As Benedict Anderson, author of the masterly Imagined Communities (1991) teaches us, even a concept as sacrosanct to the 19th century as the “nation-state” is a construction: in effect, a series of stories we tell each other to reinforce our sense of community, not something that follows inevitably from ethnicity, language, religion, or any other supposed marker of common identity.
Living in a subcontinent in which the very ideas of India and Pakistan have been—and remain—contested, we should recognize that nationhood is something we invent, not something that exists out there that we may pluck at our leisure.
Further, and crucially, we, no more than our ancestors, nor those who will follow us, have any “pure” access to truth. The best that we can do is to recognize that our view of history (or of culture, or religion, or anything else), which we sincerely believe to be true, is inevitably filtered through an interpretive lens that, perforce, makes it only one of many possible histories.
We should know that better than most, since we received a history from the British that legitimized our colonization on the grounds that we were backward, uncivilized, and unable to rule ourselves—the infamous “white man’s burden” of Rudyard Kipling.
The work of Edward Said and the many cultural theorists who followed him shows us that colonial histories—consciously or otherwise—denigrated the cultures of those who were colonized and helped provide an intellectual rationale for the “mission civilisatrice” (“civilizing mission”, as the French called their colonial enterprise). Nor should we be surprised. As Walter Benjamin famously wrote, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”
The British telling of our history was supplanted, after independence, by a counter-narrative spun around the centrality of the Congress and Nehru in particular. Decades of Congress hegemony, coupled with a culture of sycophancy and a descent into dynasticism, has caused this to become encrusted into a new dominant narrative in which the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty is front and centre, indispensable to the past, present, and future of India.
Just as politics is about contestation, so too is history. What Modi has cannily realized is that his assault on the Congress must be waged on at least two fronts: a conventional political front of offering a policy platform based on governance and efficiency and criticizing the Congress’ policy failures; and, crucially, a second front—a “battle of ideas” if you will—in which he systematically attempts to dismantle the scaffolding around the already creaky structure of Nehru-Gandhi telling and retelling of our history.
Let me reiterate: one does not have to support Modi’s attempted usurpation of the primacy of the Congress narrative. Many other narratives are possible, from those whose voices are unheard—such as our tribals, who are ventriloquized by well-known writers on the left but remain largely mute.
What we must assert as free-thinking citizens of a sovereign, democratic republic is the right to contest established narratives and propose our own alternatives if we wish. For starting this discussion, Modi deserves enormous credit.
Vivek Dehejia is a professor of economics at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.