Battle for Indian history: A history in service of rulers
Indian history is a battlefield. Hindu nationalists fight off invading colonial canards and Marxist mumbo jumbo of materialistic interpretation of history. Secularists, alarmed by the saffron surge, sound shrill warnings against communalisation of history writing. Stalinist activists masquerading as historians girdle up to resist intrusion of sundries (i.e. anyone outside their clique) onto their turf in media, academia and research institutions. Muslim scholars resist attempts to portray Islam and Muslims as villains. Academic historians raise their hands in despair at politicisation of the past to serve current needs. And the new generation just wonders why there is so much fuss over an age that is dead and gone.
Indeed, why should it matter who writes history? The short answer is that for India history matters because it extends into the present. India’s history is hoary, chequered and continuous. The link between history writing and actual politics is extraordinarily strong here. Witness the critical role that the myths of Aryan invasion, Brahmanical persecution of Buddhism and Jainism and non-religious motives for temple destruction by Muslim conquerors play in the current political discourse. An unusually large part of India’s history has been disputed for political reasons even when well established e.g. denial of Islam’s utterly destructive role. It is impossible to make sense of the present – its complexities, problems, challenges, opportunities and possible solutions – without a proper understanding of the past.
There is another, deeper reason for Indians to learn and remember their past. India derives her sense of nationhood, her self-image, her identity, from her ancient past. That past is kept alive and the sense of national unity sustained through a living tradition: Veda, Upanishads, Ramayana, Mahabharata, literature of saints, pilgrimages, modes of worship and rituals that are similar in substance though differing in details and a collective memory of foreign invasions and heroic resistance offered by national icons of valour and sacrifice. Unlike histories of Ancient Rome, Egypt or Mesopotamia, which survive only in museums and monuments, Indian history is a living presence in the lives of millions.
Tampering with history can, therefore, undermine India’s self-image. A wrong perception of the past can obscure a clear view of the present. That indeed was the route taken, first by colonial masters, Christian missionaries and in recent decades by leftists. Each of these groups had a direct political interest in moulding the way Indians looked upon themselves and others. As in several other matters, enemies of Hinduism and Hindu society have a much clearer understanding of the stakes involved than the Hindus. The former, therefore, lead the assault and the latter try to defend themselves – usually in a bumbling, apologetic manner.
It is therefore important for us to remember that great many historians of India had their own reasons for distorting or suppressing facts. British historians, nationalist leaders of freedom struggle, Aligarh school of historians and Marxist activists passing for historians, all had some purpose other than presentation of colourless truth in their treatment of historical material. Their predilections have vastly compounded the complex task of writing an authentic history of an ancient civilization like India stretching over several millennia.
Nobody can say that all British history of India was wrong. While many British historians were prejudiced, some had genuine curiosity about a culture which was very different from their own. They applied modern methods of historiography to India. They collected, collated and compared old manuscripts, deciphered old, forgotten scripts and systematically mapped out historical monuments built over centuries by a variety of rulers and scattered over a large area. With this, they uncovered an important segment of India’s past which even Indians as a people had largely forgotten. Their labours established India as an ancient civilization with a glorious past, wide influence and remarkable continuity, rather than an area of darkness.
For all these positive factors, British historians distorted our history in some very important respects. They could never shed their sense of racial and cultural superiority. As rulers of a fast expanding empire, they had some definite political needs. For example, the subject people should have no higher notion of their past beyond their present status which they should accept without murmur, preferably with gratefulness. The British taught us that India had never been a nation but a conglomeration of miscellaneous people drawn from diverse sources, that its history had always been a history of invaders and conquerors, that Indians were indifferent to self-rule, and so long as their village life remained intact, they did not bother about who ruled at the Centre.
All these lessons were tirelessly taught and dutifully learnt. So much so that even after the British left, they form an important part of our mental make-up. How often do we hear that India is a multi-religious, multi-racial, multi-lingual and multi-cultural entity trying painfully to acquire some principle of unity! The very phrase ‘Indian sub-continent’ implies a subtle denial of the essential unity of India.
The Britishers’ main interest was to write a history which justified their presence in India. They held India by the right of conquest and had to recognise the legitimacy of this right in the case of their predecessors like the Arabs, Afghans and Mughals. Thus, British historians sought to justify Muslim rule in India by presenting Mughals as empire builders and themselves as their successors. Hindu resistance to Muslim rule was played down by the British historians as rebellions and revolts by local chieftains against the legitimate central authority. In the process, they conferred on Muslim rulers a legitimacy that the latter had never enjoyed in the eyes of the Hindus. For Hindus, Muslim rule was as much as an alien imposition as the British, to be resisted as much as was permitted by the circumstances.
In a great irony, this view of India’s history came to be endorsed enthusiastically by nationalist leaders during the struggle for freedom against the British. In the vain hope of winning over Muslim support in the struggle for independence, nationalist leaders started rewriting the history of medieval times. Under their inspiration, Muslim rule became indigenous, Muslim rulers became national kings, and those who fought them were suitably downgraded. The great historian RC Majumdar tells us how, under this motivation, national leaders created an imaginary history with one of them even proclaiming that Hindus were not at all a subject race under Muslim rule, and how ‘these absurd notions, which would have been laughed at by leaders at the beginning of the 19th century passed current as history at the end of that century.’ (Preface to Vol. VI of the History and Culture of Indian People)
The national leaders at the time of independence were quite content with the history written by the colonial rulers. For one, as Ram Swarup remarks, to throw off an intellectual and cultural yoke is far more difficult than to throw off a political yoke. More importantly, the notion that India had never been a nation, that it had not known any freedom or freedom struggle in the past enabled these leaders to exalt their status by claiming that they were the first nation builders, that they had led the first freedom struggle India had ever known and, indeed, India became free for the first time under their aegis.
The whitewashing and indigenisation of the Muslim rule received a powerful boost from “modernist” Muslim historians, particularly from the Aligarh Muslim University. Sired by late Mohammad Habib, this school said that the barbaric atrocities committed by the Turks should not be blamed on Islam. The wars in medieval India should be treated purely as political wars waged by some states ruled by Muslim sultans against other states ruled by Hindu rajas. The Muslim sultans were interested in building an empire even as Hindu rajas were interested in expanding their kingdoms. It should not be held against Muslim sultans if the peculiar caste structure of Hindu society made them victorious most of the time, we are told.
In the 1970s, communist ‘historians’ converted history into a powerful assault on Hindu society, Hindu culture and Hindu Dharma. Noted Kannada litterateur SL Bhyrappa has given us a firsthand account of the beginning of massive rewriting and falsification of Indian history undertaken by the Indira Gandhigovernment in the garb of national integration.
“During the year 1969-70 the Central Government under Mrs. Indira Gandhi established a committee under the Chairmanship of G Parthasarathy, a diplomat close to Nehru-Gandhi family. Its task was to integrate the nation through education. At that time I (i.e. Mr. Bhyrappa) was a reader in Educational Philosophy at NCERT and was selected as one of the five members of the committee. In our first meeting Mr. Parthasarathy, as Chairman of the committee, explained the purpose of our committee in typically diplomatic language: ‘It is our duty not to sow the seeds of thorns in the minds of the growing children which will grow up as barriers to national integration. Such thorns are found mostly in the history courses. Occasionally, we can find them in language and social science courses also. We have to weed them out. We have to include only such thoughts that go towards inculcating the concept of national integration firmly in the minds of our children. This committee carries this great responsibility.’” Mr. Bhyrappa saw through the game and opposed the proposal through cogent arguments. He was promptly dropped from the committee. (Distorting Indian History-I, S L Bhyrappa,bharatabharati.wordpress.com)
This was the genesis of the history books written by leftists, including NCERT text books. Since then, Stalinist activists masquerading as historians have deliberately and systematically distorted every period of our history to fit it into Marxist categories.
Indian history which is intellectually fashionable, politically correct and taught in schools and colleges comprises lies, half truths and distortions emanating from all these sources. The result is predictable. It cannot stand even elementary scrutiny; it must rely on patronage and power to remain in currency, as we shall see.
Guidelines intended to misguide
British historians, nationalist leaders of freedom struggle, Aligarh school of historians and Marxist activists passing for historians, all had some purpose other than presentation of colourless truth in their treatment of historical material. Indian history which is intellectually fashionable, politically correct and taught in schools and colleges comprises lies, half truths and distortions emanating from the all these sources.
The seed is contained in the NCERT guidelines for history books announced in 1982. These are full of recommendations for telling lies to our children, or for not telling them the truth at all. The guidelines say, quite commendably, that ‘the term Aryan cannot be used as a racial category’. However, the Aryan Invasion Theory, baseless and divisive as it is, is to be retained faithfully. The guidelines go on to say in the same breath that ‘historians have been told to stress the interaction between Aryan and non-Aryan cultures’. The division of ancient Indian culture into Aryan and non-Aryan is itself derived from the theory of an Aryan invasion. As Sita Ram Goel points out, as long as we continue to talk of Aryan and non-Aryan cultures, the terms ‘Aryan’ and ‘Dravidian’ cannot be divested of racial connotations.
But worse is to follow. The guidelines stipulate that the ancient period of Indian history cannot be referred to as Hindu period. They warn against overreliance on and use of myths as history (i.e. Ramayana and Mahabharata as also Rama and Krishna should find no place in history). ‘Overglorification’ of country’s past is forbidden and the ‘Gupta Age can no longer be referred to as the golden period of Hinduism’, say the guidelines.
As regards the medieval period, the guidelines say that ‘Muslim rulers cannot be identified as foreigners except for early invaders who did not settle here; Aurangazeb can no longer be referred to as the champion of Islam; Shivaji cannot be over glorified in Maharashtra textbooks; characterisation of the medieval period as a dark period or as a time of conflict between Hindus and Muslims is forbidden. Historians cannot identify Muslims as rulers and Hindus as subjects. The state cannot be described as theocracy, without examining actual influence of religion. No exaggeration of the role of religion in political conflicts is permitted… nor should there be neglect and omission of trends and processes of assimilation and synthesis.’
History scholar Sita Ram Goel has commented on each of these guidelines in great detail and shown how they make it impossible to write an honest history of India. Doing away with the distortions inherent in these guidelines will be first task of future historians.
Notice how accurately the guidelines conform to the perceptions of British historians, the Aligarh school and Marxists. Needless to say, those who laid down the guidelines belonged to the same group of ‘eminent’ historians who wrote textbooks in conformity with them. The result is predictable. The history books written by these ‘eminent’ historians cannot stand a moment’s scrutiny.
In a powerful challenge, journalist scholar Arun Shourie documented their lies, perversions and double standards in his book “Eminent Historians: Their technology, their line, their fraud.” Fifteen years after its publication, its contents remain uncontested on veracity and accuracy.
He showed how the leftists have deliberately and systematically falsified our history in a massive though clumsy and dishonest attempt to fit it into Marxist categories. Giving concrete examples, he laid bare their ideological predilections and dirty tricks. The book covers the entire gamut of Indian history, encompassing ancient, medieval and modern periods. A few examples will suffice for our purpose.
Consider, for example, what our students are taught about Bhagavad Gita. Gita has been a source of spiritual inspiration, guidance and solace for millions, as also philosophical speculation for thinkers through the ages. Commentators from Shankara and Ramanuja to Tilak, Aurobindo, and Gandhiji in our age have sought to interpret it in the light of their own intuition and experience.
All of them, however, missed what is self-evident to our eminent historian: “The doctrine of Bhakti, clearly enunciated first in the Gita… became socially more relevant in the Gupta period… when the feudatories considered themselves as meditating at the feet of their masters.” This is because Bhakti “reflected the complete dependence of the serfs or tenants on the landowners in the context of Indian feudal society”.
That pearl of scholarly insight is from DN Jha’s Ancient India. And he has borrowed it from his theoretical ancestor DD Kosambi: “Thus, Gita was a logical performance for the early Gupta period when expanding village settlement brought in new wealth to a powerful central government.”
What a way to decide the date of Gita and interpret its message! But the great scholar cannot stop till he has ‘demonstrated’ the ultimate failure of the scripture. “The Gita might help reconcile certain factions of the ruling class… but it could not possibly bring about any fundamental change in the means of production (notice the assumption that this was the task of the scripture, from which follows the failure!), nor could its fundamental lack of contact with reality (despite its being ‘a logical performance for the age’) and disdain for logical consistency (which the great dialectician Shankara, among others, missed) promote a rational approach to the basic problems of Indian society.”
Coming to the medieval period, NCERT guidelines stipulate that historians cannot identify Muslims as rulers and Hindus as subjects, and that the state in medieval India under Muslim rule cannot be described as a theocracy without examining the role of religion in political conflicts.
Here, in their zeal to whitewash the dark and blood-soaked record of Islam in India, the eminent historians disregard, among other things, the detailed and meticulous contemporary records including those maintained by the court chroniclers of the Muslim rulers themselves.
Thus, this is what some Hindu records say about the condition of Hindus under Muslim rule. Gangadevi, wife of Kumar Kampana (died 1374 AD) of Vijayanagara, writes in her Madhurãvijayam regarding the state of things in Madurai region when it was under Muslim rule: ‘The wicked mlechchas pollute the religion of the Hindus every day. They break the images of gods into pieces and throw away the articles of worship. They throw into fire Srimad Bhagwat and other holy scriptures, forcibly take away the conch shell and bell of the Brahmanas, and lick the sandal paints on their bodies. They urinate like dogs on the tulsi plant and deliberately pass faeces in the Hindu temples. They throw water from their mouths on the Hindus engaged in worship, and harass the Hindu saints as if they were so many lunatics let large.’
Chaitanya-mañgala, a biography of the great Vaishnava saint of medieval India, presents the plight of Hindus in Navadvipa on the eve of the saint’s birth in 1484 AD. The author, Jayananda, writes: ‘The king seizes the Brahmanas, pollutes their caste and even takes their lives. If a conch shell is heard to blow in any house, its owner is made to forfeit his wealth, caste and even life. The king plunders the houses of those who wear sacred threads on the shoulder and put scared marks on the forehead, and then binds them. He breaks the temples and uproots tulsi plants. The bathing in Ganga is prohibited and hundreds of sacred ashvatthaand jack trees have been cut down.’
Then there is this searing cry of Guru Nanak recorded in the Guru Granth Sahib: “having lifted Islam to the head, You have engulfed Hindustan in dread… (so great is their terror that) no one asks after those who have been killed… Hindus have been forbidden to pray at the time of the Muslim’s namaz, Hindu society has been left without a bath, even those who have never uttered Ram, can get no respite. (Mahla 1.360 and 1.417).
Here is a falsehood and worse from the same period: “Firuz executed a Brahmin for abusing the prophet of Islam. On the other hand, there were some instances of conversion of Muslims to Hinduism. Thus, Chaitanya, the great Vaishnava reformer, converted a number of Muslims.” So writes Satish Chandra in Medieval India.
Contrast it with this: “A report was brought to the Sultan that there was in Delhi an old Brahman who persisted in publicly performing the worship of idols in his house; and that people of the city, both Musalmans and Hindus, used to resort to his house to worship the idol… An order was accordingly given that the Brahman should be brought into the presence of the Sultan at Firozabad… The true faith was declared to the Brahman and the right course pointed out, but he refused to accept it. Orders were given for raising a pile of faggots before the door of the darbar. The Brahman was tied hand and foot and cast into it; the tablet was thrown on top and the pile was lighted. The writer of this book was present at the darbar and witnessed the execution… the wood was dry, and the fire first reached his feet and drew from him a cry, but the flames quickly enveloped his head and consumed him.”
That is the heart-rending eye-witness account of the incident recorded in Tarikh-i-Firuz Shahi of Shamsuddin bin Sirajuddin Afif, courtier of Sultan Firuz Shah Tughlaq (1350-1388 AD) himself. A classic example of what Ram Swarup calls history versus historians. And yes, some germination of composite culture, too.
Our eminent historian does not, of course, tell us how many Muslims Chaitanya converted, by what means and how it compares with lakhs upon lakhs of Hindus whose conversion the Muslim historians of the time celebrated. It would go against his secular credentials to note that in every other case [if any], Muslims were only returning to their ancestral religion.
Nor is the falsification confined to individual incidents. It covers entire epochs, running over centuries. Relying on another ‘eminent’ historian RS Sharma, Satish Chandra informs us that the Indian economy in the seventh to tenth centuries became almost exclusively rural or agrarian-oriented, with trade and urbanism suffering a distinct decline, internally, but also externally as the India trade fell off because the Byzantines stopped importing silk from India.
Andre Wink (Al-Hind, The Making of The Indo-Islamic World, Oxford University Press, 1990, vol. I, p. 220 -222), notes, “… R. S. Sharma, whose Indian Feudalism has misguided virtually all historians of the period, not only because it is entirely written from the a priori assumption of the ‘dark age’ doggedly searching for point by point parallels with Europe, but also, more accidentally, because there has never been anything to challenge it.”
After examining the material on which Sharma relied to formulate his thesis, Wink says “Sharma’s thesis essentially involves an obstinate attempt to find ‘elements’ which fit a preconceived picture of what should have happened in India because it happened in Europe (or is alleged to have happened in Europe by Sharma and his school of historians whose knowledge of European history is rudimentary and completely outdated) or because of the antiquated Marxist scheme of a ‘necessary’ development of ‘feudalism’ out of ‘slavery’. The methodological underpinnings of Sharma’s work are in fact so thin that one wonders why, for so long, Sharma’s colleagues have called his work ‘pioneering’.”(Quoted by Meenakshi Jain in A Random Survey of Satish Chandra’s Medieval India)
About Mughal empire before Aurangzeb, Satish Chandra tells us: “There was no atmosphere of confrontation between the Sikhs and Mughal ruler during this period. Nor was there any systematic persecution of Hindus, and hence, no occasion for Sikhs or any group or sect to stand forth as the champion of the Hindus against religious persecution.”
Really? The atrocities committed by Babur when he invaded India in 1521 drew a poignant cry from Guru Nanak who in his agony took God to task: “Thou hast sent Yama disguised as the great Moghul Babar, Terrible was the slaughter, Loud were the cries of the lamenters, Did this not awaken pity in Thee, O Lord?” (Adi Granth p. 360)
It was the martyrdom of Guru Arjun Dev in 1606 by Jahangir that proved a turning point in the attitude of Sikh Gurus towards the Muslim rulers when they decided to defend their rights by arms. Sir Edward Maclagan notes in The Jesuits and the Great Mogul (p. 28) “Throughout the journey from the coast to Fatehpur, the Fathers found that the Hindu temples had been destroyed by Mohammedans.” During the reign of Akbar, Governor of Lahore Husain Khan had decreed that “the Hindus should stick patches of different colours onto their shoulders or on the bottom of their sleeves, so that no Muslim might be put to indignity of showing them honour by mistake.” (Sri Ram Sharma Religious Policy of the Mughals p. 14. Italics added)
And finally a sample, from the modern period, of willful disregard of evidence or shameful ignorance.
Explaining the growth of Muslim separatism during the struggle for Independence, Bipan Chandra informs us (Modern India) that the very nature of nationalist movement alienated the Muslims. In other words, Hindus are to be blamed for Muslim separatism and Partition.
“Militant nationalism was to some extent a step back in respect of growth of national unity… speeches and writings of some militant nationalists had a strong religious and Hindu tinge… Tilak’s propagation of Shivaji and Ganapati festival, Aurobindo’s semi-mystical conception of India as mother, the terrorists’ oath before goddess Kali and the initiation of anti-partition agitation with dips in Ganga could hardly appeal to the Muslims… the reformers put a one-sided emphasis on the religious and philosophical aspects of cultural heritage… Hindu reformers invariably confined their praise of the Indian past to its ancient period… the manner in which history was taught also contributed to the growth of communal feelings…”
The learned historian never pauses to ask: why should the Muslims object to any expression of Hindu sentiment or symbolism if that expression is not directed against them or their tradition?
Shourie points out that Muslim separatism is rooted in the teachings of Quran and Hadis as the separation between believers and non-believers is of essence in Islam. He quotes VS Naipaul’s heart-rending account (Beyond Belief) of the consequences of this insistence on the believers: “Islam is not simply a matter of conscience or private belief. It makes imperial demands. A convert’s world view alters. His holy places are in Arab lands; his sacred language is Arabic. His idea of history alters. He rejects his own; he becomes, whether he likes it or not, a part of the Arab story. The convert has to turn away from everything that is his own.” The eminent historian totally disregards this separatist tendency inherent in Islam and lays the blame squarely on Hindu nationalists, reformers and history teachers.
These are not isolated illustrations handpicked to drive home the point. The bias, the predilection, the prejudice and the mindset peeping from these examples prevail throughout these history books. Yet, the shoddiness and incompetence visible in history books written by so-called eminent historians are not entirely or even mainly due to individual carelessness or lack of information, as we shall see.
(To be continued …)
– History vs. Historians Ram Swarup in Hindu Temples: What happened to them Vol. I & II, Voice of India, New Delhi. Vol. I 1990. Vol. 2nd Ed. II 1993.
– The Story of Islamic Imperialism in India Sita Ram Goel, Voice of India, New Delhi, 2nd Ed. 1994.
– History and Culture of Indian People Vol. VI and VII, Ed. R C Majumdar, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay. Vol. VI 4th Ed. 1990, Vo. VII 3rd Ed. 1994.
– Eminent Historians: Their technology, their line, their fraud, Arun Shourie, ASA, Delhi, 1998.
– Textbook of Historiography 500 BC to 2000 AD E Sreedharan, Orient Blackswan, Hyderabad, 2004
– A Random Survey of Satish Chandra’s ‘Medieval India’ (NCERT 2000) by Meenakshi Jain,voiceofdharma.org
– Nationalism and Distortions in Indian History N S Rajaram Voice of India, New Delhi, 2000