The Death of History
0 comments | by Suraj Kumar Thube
History has always been a contested terrain. The traditional definition of history as ' studying the past in order to understand the present' falls short in explaining the myriad diversities of a country like India. Looking at the present controversy regarding the removing of Mughals from textbooks, something that is wildly trending on social media, one cannot help but feel that the historicising of this diversity is under immense threat. Juxtapose this with the mindless hounding of eminent historian Sheldon Pollock for supposedly denigrating the Hindu civilisation in his monumental project under the Murty classical library of India; it is increasingly clear that an alternative interpretation of the ancient past is wantonly censured without giving a fair hearing to the same. The primary reason for the obliteration of this diversity is the reliance of certain sections of our society in the banal ideology of ' one people, one nation and one culture'. This being the base of the Hindu supremacist worldview, propounded most vociferously by the Sangh parivar, categorically dismisses an interpretative style of historicising past events which is antithetical to the mainstream Hindutva narrative. Disciplining the people with a linear, monolithic, Brahminic centric history of India, the 'other' narratives are contemptuously consigned to the back pages of history. With a blinkered single minded agenda of striving toward one single, objective history of our past, this domineering and vitriolic narrative is doing a great disservice in belittling the other forms of historiography. A rich repertoire of knowledge has emerged over the years that have challenged the conventional notions of the manner in which history as a discipline has been studied in India. From a narrative that focussed on kings and dynastic rule to the one which looks at it more through the evolution of human settlements, occupations, technology, religious practices etcetera, the discipline has come a long way in highlighting the people rather than geography, territory and empires as its centre of learning. History has begun to be studied through the triangular axis of time, space and human relations in its truest sense. This is where it unsettles the Sangh narrative the most as it emphasises the role of 'counter traditions' since our ancient past that incorporate the struggles of multiple resistance movements and ideas.
Branding these historians as anti-nationals, the conservative elements are quick to ascertain their versions of history as the truth. This group feels increasingly endangered from the 'communist' historians who raise poignant questions about an issue that is very close to their hearts - religion. A vicious binary is then generated which sees themselves as the purveyors of a self declared authentic history and brushes the entire second half as that of inconsequential 'communist morons'. ( without even acknowledging other schools of thought who have been equally vocal in condemning this historiography , namely the liberal, Cambridge and the Subaltern school of thought. ) Trivialising the issue further is the attack on the supposed non religious nature of communist historians in general for which a simple rebut of there being a fundamental difference between mythology and history is enough for a rational thinking individual to come to a nuanced conclusion. However, even in the realm of religion, the valorisation of Brahmanism as opposed to the derogatory treatment meted out to the Shramanic traditions comprising of the Buddhists, Jains, Bhakti and Sufis is quite evident. At the same time, the bigger problem is the way these other histories are ridiculed and mocked as superstitions and primitive beliefs that invariably render the marginalised section as a group devoid of any meaningful history. (Something akin to Prof. Satish Deshpande's hypothesis of 'castelessness' that talks of the dominant group being free from the local and thereby communal and casteist tendencies of the lower castes.) The need of the hour is to persistently engage with these alternative histories of our past even if it unintentionally offends the sentiments of a particular cultural group. As Salam Rushdie famously says, "nobody has a right of not to get offended". It is in this context that one should deal with the ocean of literature that is available on Indian past coming from world renowned historians like D Kosambi, D N Jha, Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib, Uma Chakravarti and others for a critical appraisal of our often glorified past. Be it Kosambi's bitter critique of the Bhagvat Gita of perpetuating social inequality; Romila Thapar's trenchant critique of 'Syndicated Hinduism' and why she calls the religion a 'conglomeration of sects'; D N Jha's highly researched work on beef eating practises in ancient India ; Irfan Habib's humane and societal touch in understanding the 'Muslim' medieval India and Chakravarti's complex narration of the feminine discourse of India's past, they should all be dealt with in an unbiased way for an informed critique of the past. Many more works have ruffled feathers like the one's by A K Ramanujan's Three hundred essays on the Ramayana to Wendy Doniger's Alternative history of Hinduism which need to be perused in order to have a meaningful dialogue and discussion to appreciate the multifarious stories of our past. he devil lies in the detail, they say. Only if the Sangh was not hell-bent in terming the entire Mughal period as the one of slavery, could we have a balanced perspective of how their lifestyles in particular still shape our present with our culinary habits, occupations, traditional attires, languages and so much more. Removing Mughals from our textbooks or for that matter a relentless onslaught against alternative histories surely hinders the process of forming an informed citizenry.
Suraj Kumar Thube is currently pursuing his MA in Political Science from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He is interested in Indian politics and Indian political thought.