Y.S. Rao's appointment is troubling not because he is not a Marxist but because he believes history is shaped by both faith and reason
In The Life of Reason, the philosopher George Santayana wrote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." And India is about to do just that by reviving the battle over its history books. The battle of the 1990s has resurfaced, with the appointment of Yellapragada Sudershan Rao to head the Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR).
It is not easy to find Rao’s academic work on search engines that showcase global academic research—his name appears in one list of “Indic savants" in the field of computational sciences of antiquity. He has also written more than two dozen posts on a blog since 2007, which, it turns out, the cartel of historians who control academic citations through peer-reviewed journals haven’t caught up with yet.
Aggrieved over a “Marxist" interpretation of Indian history and livid with the so-called Macaulayite legacy, conservative ideologues in India have long asserted that Indians have been denied access to their own glorious past, and Rao’s work is part of that project. They argue that in the history that is taught in Indian schools and colleges, the horrors committed by Muslim invaders are understated and their positive influences exaggerated; the sins of secular politicians blurred out and the contribution of some—in particular the Nehru-Gandhi family—over-emphasized, and Indians are forced to look at their past through foreign eyes which leads to an inferiority complex.
To be sure, high school textbooks of many topics, including history, are woefully inadequate. Examples of textbooks from the last decade in Gujarat and Maharashtra have both shown remarkable howlers which would be hilarious if they weren’t real. When otherwise articulate Indians argue about points of Indian history, revealing the vacuity of their thoughts and ignorance of content, blame such history texts.
Indeed, Indian history texts can be improved. Neither Hitler nor Mao (or Lenin) was a hero, and Mohandas Gandhi was truly a remarkable leader, even though he had human frailties and he wasn’t a saint. But it is a Hanuman-like leap of logic to stress that to undo those wrongs a fresh set of mistakes must be made. And Rao’s appointment could lead to just that. If his appointment is troubling, it is not because he is not a Marxist, nor because he wants to highlight intellectual achievements of ancient, pre-colonized India, but because he appears to believe that history is shaped by both faith and reason.
Faith matters, of course; but faith is part of a culture, it should not dictate history. Faith is about unquestioned belief; history is about facts and reality. Faith may lead one to believe that Lord Rama was an ideal male; history may legitimately lead one to question if he existed at all—or if he was the product of imagination of a gifted writer. (Reason may also prompt some to question if he was indeed the ideal male). Ramayana is a great work of literature; it has historical significance—but is it history?
This is not to suggest that a literary hero cannot be inspirational. But historifying myths is a problem. If myths and history are not kept apart, the result can be a warped worldview, because the myths we believe in tend to be heroic, glorifying “us" and belittling “them", and that leads to a perverse form of nationalism whose consequences—history shows us—are usually disastrous.
The rationale of rewriting history books is to glorify the past, and its logical extension is the kind of vandalization that we saw in 1992, when the Babri Masjid was torn down in Ayodhya. Rao’s appointment is part of a grander plan aimed at reimagining the past and making myths acceptable, to advance the Hindu nationalist agenda. It also means disregarding the inconvenient parts, which interfere with the master narrative. Isolated though they might seem, there is a pattern in the withdrawal of some textbooks during 1998-2004 when the National Democratic Alliance was last in power, the quixotic battle over the “Aryan Invasion Theory", the campaign to remove an essay of the late poet A.K. Ramanujan which shows alternative renditions of the Ramayana, the banning books about Gandhi and Jinnah in Gujarat, the dream to reoccupy sites of hundreds of places where temples once stood, the attacks on D.N. Jha (because he exploded myths about the sacred cow) and calling Romila Thapar a foreign agent, the sustained denigration of some independence-era leaders for their alleged appeasement towards Pakistan, and the idolising of alternate heroes—Vallabhbhai Patel, Vivekananda, and Subhash Chandra Bose.
And so we have a government now spending taxpayers’ money to build a very tall statue for Patel, a politician who opposed the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh; exalting the philosopher Vivekananda, who spoke out against idol worship; and valorizing Bose, a nationalist who used Hindustani—that amalgam of Hindi and Urdu—and not Hindi, and in Roman script, to be inclusive in communicating with the Indian National Army troops. But being Indian, this government naturally suffers from irony deficiency.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.
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