Not very long ago, an apparel manufacturer had launched an eye-catching ad campaign that highlighted ‘United Colours’ of that company.
It seems that those engaged in the field of Indian history writing (re-writing?) prefer the slogan of irreconcilably ‘Divided Colours’ in the scholarly spectrum. Those who for decades flaunted their skin tone as ‘shocking pink’ are now shocked into seeing red because those who were so far dwelling in the closet have come out all guns blazing waving the saffron flag. In fact, behaving more like black sheep in the historian’s flock. The section of population that usually associated with green hue is now constrained to worry, not without some justification, that the ‘revisionists’ are motivated solely by the desire to whitewash. Some are envious—turning yellow—feeling left out of action and 15 seconds of glory battling rivals on the small screen but we, sometime student and teacher of India’s past, are suffering from the blues.
You may ask what purpose is served getting chromatically obsessed when Holi is far away and much more serious problems deserve the (undivided?) attention of the nation? We would like to submit that nothing holds a graver threat to the unity and integrity of India than the jaundiced interpretation of history. Contestations about past are not about scholarship or lack of it. These are primarily to martial public opinion for or against a party. More than any predictions based on psephology, it’s the prejudices that determine political behaviour of the masses.
What the celebrated historians professing the secular faith forget is that their conclusions based on latest ‘scientific’ research matter little to the man and woman on the street. For them myths, legends and folklore handed down outside the school context are inseparable from ‘proven’ facts and objective analysis. Shared memories of a community are shaped continuously more by metaphors and personal (subjective) experience than research papers marking a watershed in peer-reviewed professional journals.
The problem is more complicated when research dealing with ancient or medieval period is ‘recognised’ as path-breaking or paradigm shifting first by foreign mentors and then ‘preached’ by local protégés to compatriots as Gospel truth. The sharp division of scholars between red/pink and saffron camps on this battlefield doesn’t leave any room for shades of grey.
Indian history can no longer remain confined to volatile inquiries into beef eating in Vedic Age, villainy of iconoclastic brigand Mahmud of Ghazni, bigotry of Aurangzeb or for that matter the renunciation of war by Ashoka the Great, religious tolerance and glorious cultural synthesis practised by Mughal-e-Azam Akbar or the emergence of the ‘Idea of India’ in the laboratory of that ‘Great Alchemist’, Jawaharlal Nehru. The study of India’s freedom struggle and events since Independence has long suffered from ideological partisanship and opportunistic compulsions of hagiography under long-drawn dynastic rule. To anyone outside the coterie of hitherto entrenched-in-power historians, it is obvious that a re-visioning of history is long over due.
Unfortunately, when uber-patriots with little exposure to the discipline of history start enlightening audiences about jaw-dropping ‘inventions and discoveries’ made by Indians ‘thousands of year ago’, they only succeed in providing ammunition to the ‘enemy’ and cause collateral damage in friendly fire. Poor revisionists get tainted by invisible association and stand condemned for sharing the ‘Hindu-revivalist’ world view—that is without any further discussion labelled as ignorant and ill informed if not outright obscurantist/casteist/communal.
The ‘nationalist’ historians of an earlier generation may have well erred and over-stated their case to redress the imbalance and get rid of distortions created by foreign ‘imperialist’ historians, but this is no reason, almost seven decades after Independence, to suffer from an incurable guilty conscience.
Let there be an informed debate, democratically conducted, that goes beyond hurling abuse and raking up extraneous matters like ‘these are the people who killed the father of the nation and now they are hell bent on killing the truth and pushing the country to the precipice of another bloody Partition’.
Not everyone who today questions the ‘monopoly of wisdom’ claimed by the dyed-in-the-wool Marxists—fellow travellers or the sycophantic brigade of historians loyal to Nehru-Gandhi dynasty (that has enjoyed the proverbial loaves of office for what seems to be an eternity)—can be tarred, pardon the mixed metaphor, by the saffron paint. Brandishing the names of internationally renowned ‘heavyweight historians’, alas, is no longer a guarantee to silence either fellow historians or political adversaries.
Young Indians are not willing or waiting to be brainwashed by anyone.
Pushpesh Pant is a former professor of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi