Pavan K. Varma | History and caricature: The difference isn't minor!

The revision of history is a much more complex project than simply trying to downplay the Mughals

History is a contentious subject, where personal bias often intervenes. It is for this reason that historical narratives cannot be frozen in time. But what needs to be changed, and how? Objectively, the government should not be the final arbitrator, because it also has its own worldview on the past. This is the dilemma which is at the crux of the NCERT’s recent controversial changes in the rendering of our history.

Firstly, let us accept that educational curriculums must incorporate changes on the basis of new information, and correct previous errors and omissions. For instance, modern scientific tools, such as hydrological and drilling data, oceanography, morpho-dynamics, geology, remote sensing and satellite data, clearly establish that the river Sarasvati, which the Rig Veda describes as a mighty river flowing from the mountain to the seas in 45 of its hymns, began to dry up between 2500 BCE and 1900 BCE. It follows, therefore, that the authors of the Rig Veda, which describe the river as “great”, “vast” and “tempestuous”, must have been on Indian soil much before 2500 BCE, thereby making India one of the oldest civilisations of the world, and junking the theory that the Aryans “invaded” India in 1500 BCE.

Secondly, the attempt by mostly leftist historians, perhaps for well-intentioned reasons, to whitewash or downplay the sheer brutality, religious hostility and destruction of the Turkic-Islamic invasion, needs to be revisited. Historian Will Durant has said that “the Mohammedan conquest of India is probably the bloodiest story in history”. This truth must now be acknowledged, because if not, it creates an avoidable backlash. However, we need to simultaneously emphasise that acrimonies of the past belong to the past, and today Muslims are as much a part of India as anybody else, and contributors to our multi-religious “Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb”. Many countries which have had a troubled past, such as South Africa where apartheid was imposed, have now, as independent countries, acknowledged the past in order to transcend it, through instruments like the Truth and Justice Reconciliation Mission. The keyword here is reconciliation, where history is neither airbrushed, nor allowed to fester.

Thirdly, we need to widen and enrich the narrative of our history. This must include giving far more recognition to the verifiable, remarkable and unprecedented achievements of ancient India, as discussed in my book The Great Hindu Civilization. There was a view, by Western oriented liberals, that India’s past was largely superstition, prejudice and sterile rituals, and the way forward was to adopt modernity in the Western sense. Modernity is a desired goal, but it cannot be at the cost of knowing what your own civilisation, thousands of years ago, had achieved in an entire array of subjects: philosophy, metaphysics, science, architecture, poetry, literature, aesthetics, art and grammar — to name just a few. We must also include hitherto ignored or overlooked heroes of our history and freedom struggle across the country. And, we need to reduce the disproportionate focus on northern Indian history, and give much greater space to great rulers — to quote just some examples — like Krishnadeva Raya of the Vijayanagar empire, scholar-king Raja Bhoja, and Raja Raja Chola, who spread Indian culture vastly beyond its boundaries.

Fourthly, we need to jettison the caricaturing of our great heritage by what can be called the ‘Dinanath Batra’ school of history. He is a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the founder of two organisations — the Shiksha Bachao Andolan Samiti and the Shiksha Sanskriti Uthan Samiti. Batra writes in his books that cars — as exist today — used to ply in Vedic India. According to him they were called “anashva rath”. He also writes that modern stem cell research was known then, for otherwise how could a sage convert a mass of flesh into the hundred bodies of the Kauravas? Batra further claims that live telecasts were present at the time of the Mahabharata 4,000 years ago, since Sanjaya inside a palace in Hastinapur could use his divya shakti to give a “live telecast” of the battle of Mahabharata to the blind Dhritarashtra. As part of this genre of history, plastic surgery, it is claimed, was known in ancient India because the trunk of an elephant was grafted on a human body in the form of Lord Ganesha. And that advanced artificial insemination was practiced thousands of years ago since Kunti “miraculously” conceived her sons without intercourse. The entire project to sensibly reclaim ancient India’s genuine achievements is reduced to a laughing stock by such exaggerations.

The line between legitimate pride in the past and racism or xenophobia is thin. Batra comes close to crossing the line when he attributes a quotation to Dr S. Radhakrishnan, the great philosopher and former President of India. According to Batra, Dr Radhakrishnan said the following at a dinner to a British audience: “Friends, one day God felt like making rotis. When he was cooking the rotis, the first one was cooked less and the English were born. The second one stayed longer on the fire and the Negroes were born. Alert after his first two mistakes, when God went on to cook his third roti, it came out just right and Indians were born.” To believe that philosopher-statesman Dr Radhakrishnan, would say that the English were a half-baked race, and the Negroes (an offensive term) an overcooked one, while the Indians are the perfect roti or race, beggars the imagination. The unfortunate part is that Batra’s books are not only prescribed reading in schools in Gujarat, but he is also a member of the education committee in Haryana since the BJP came to power in 2014.

The revision of history is, therefore, a much more complex project than simply trying to downplay the Mughals. Change is needed, but it can become dangerous if it follows a “non-academic partisan agenda”, as several eminent historians have said in their critique of the changes introduced by NCERT, which have deleted as “repetitive” references to “Mughal India”, “communal riots”, “Gandhi’s dislike of Hindu extremism” and even the “Emergency”. Perhaps the best solution would be to set up an independent panel of historians representing all shades of opinion to decide on what needs to be revised. But will any government allow this to happen?

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