Generational right to revisit history and how

Many senior citizens of the post-Independence era have not heard of actions such as the Ghadar movement or the Navy Mutiny. The same is true for tribal leaders like Birsa Munda.
An image of the Red Fort in New Delhi used for representational purpose only. (File Photo | PTI)
An image of the Red Fort in New Delhi used for representational purpose only. (File Photo | PTI)

Generally, the history of a nation records wars fought in the past. In a curious turn of events, we are right now witnessing a minor war of sorts over our nation’s history. Two notable events last week triggered fresh sparks in the battle of words.

The first was a new Light and Sound show at the Red Fort in Delhi, replacing the earlier version running for over 50 years. A Delhi-based semi-retired journalist, not particularly well-known for the accuracy of her statements, tweeted about Jawaharlal Nehru’s name being reportedly excluded from the list of lawyers who had defended officers of Subhas Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army in the famous INA trials held within the precincts of the Red Fort.

This, she felt, if true, was a deliberate distortion of history that should be immediately rectified. This sparked a debate on social media about the present government’s persistent efforts to rewrite the history of India to suit its political agenda by de-emphasising the role of the hitherto feted personalities, including, among others, members of the Nehru-Gandhi family.

Not having watched the recreated son et lumière spectacle, I am not able to vouch for the claims of the lady journalist. But what I do know is that Jawaharlal Nehru’s fame did not arise from his legal acumen. He did not practice law for a substantial length of time.

The defence for the INA soldiers was led by accomplished lawyers like Bhulabhai Desai, Sarat Chandra Bose (brother of Subhas Chandra Bose), Tej Bahadur Sapru and Kailash Nath Katju. If Nehru indeed appeared, it must have been as a junior counsel before these heavyweights of that era. But that is not the point.

What is important is the background of the trial, the names of the heroes who were facing the gallows for the freedom of the country, and the outcome. There is a prevailing theory that the INA assault and the Royal Indian Navy Mutiny weakened the Indian Army, shaking the foundation of the British Empire in India.

Clement Atlee, the then British Prime Minister, is said to have admitted in private conversations the realisation that the armed forces could not be relied upon and that it might trigger further revolts that led to the complete withdrawal of the British from India. This version is of far greater import than the names of lawyers who appeared for the trial.

However, putting the total context in place does not mean it is in any way discounting the contribution of others. If anything, it complements the narrative rather than altering it. Therefore, the cause for the consternation of the old school who preferred a unidimensional view is flummoxing, to say the least.

The second was the launch of a book by a young polymath, Sanjeev Sanyal, called Revolutionaries: The Other Story of How India Won Its Freedom. The primary thesis of Sanyal’s book is that the history of India’s struggle for freedom is usually told from the perspective of the non-violent movement.

Yet, the story of armed resistance to colonial occupation is just as important. That story is almost always presented as acts of individual heroism and not as part of a wider movement that had any overarching strategy or significant impact on the overall struggle for Independence. In reality, the revolutionaries were part of a large network that sustained armed resistance against the British Empire for half a century. They not only created a wide network inside India but also overseas. This was no small-scale movement of naive individual heroism but one that involved many extraordinary young men and women.

Speaking at the function, the Home Minister of India, Amit Shah, who was the chief guest, said that such a book is testimony to the fact that the history written so far tells only part of the story. In highlighting the role of a select few, the contributions of a large many have been either overlooked or glossed over.

Even if some of the names known—such as those of Aurobindo Ghosh, Rashbehari Bose, Bagha Jatin, and Chandrashekhar Azad—are familiar, the exact nature and extent of their contributions are hazy, especially among the younger generation. Some names like Vinayak Savarkar have been mired in partisan politics.

Many senior citizens of the post-Independence era have not heard of actions such as the Ghadar movement or the Navy Mutiny. The same is true for tribal leaders like Birsa Munda, who were prominent figures in the war of Independence and got short shrift in the chronicles.

Similarly, there were heroes in different regions whose names have been all but forgotten. It is important to keep their memories alive to imbue a sense of patriotism and nationalism that is fast becoming extinct—as reflected in the degeneration of values around us.

For sure, the present government is making a concerted effort to rewrite parts of the narrative. That there may be an underlying political agenda cannot be denied entirely. But every generation has a right to revisit its past and question the narrative, which by default is set by those in power. This happens in every country and society. The version supported by the present regime will also be subject to scrutiny by future generations, and finally, a synthesis will emerge to be judged by posterity.

However, to oppose an alternate or supplementary point of view on charges of bias can be self-defeating. Those challenging existing wisdom need to be engaged intellectually on merit and not with contempt. That will only polarise camps. Not surprisingly, at the book launch event, one could not spot any faces from the so-called liberal historians.

Similarly, one suspects there were none from among the neo-nationalists invited to a similar gathering at another venue in the capital a few days later. Meanwhile, the right-wing ecosystem is taking root. What’s more, it is being led by young Turks who do not easily bow to disparagement.

Sandip Ghose

Current affairs commentator

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The New Indian Express