Distorted Histories and Unconstitutional Autocracy in the 'Mother of Democracy'

By tracing the roots of democracy on the eve of Constitution Day to a most undemocratic, religiously ordained social order, the BJP government is inflicting humiliation on millions of Dalits and other marginalised sections of the Indian population.

The ministry of education sent an order to institutions of higher learning in the country to celebrate Constitution Day on November 26 on the subject of ‘India – the Mother of Democracy’.

It is reported in media that the University Grants Commission (UGC) has urged all universities and colleges to hold lectures on such themes as the “ideal king” in Indian philosophy as well as khap panchayats and their “democratic traditions” to celebrate India as the “mother of democracy” on Constitution Day. The circular carried a concept note prepared by the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) titled ‘Bharat: Loktantra ki Janani’. 

The concept note has all the necessary ingredients of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) Hindutva ideology and is totally out of tune with the progress made in Indian historiography since Independence. However, it does provide a useful service of nakedly displaying the RSS’s institutional capture of the premier national research institute of historical studies in the country under Modi’s regime. The fact that it is thrust upon institutions of higher learning in the country warrants a stringent criticism of its views, notwithstanding the hotchpotch of words put together in the document and the poverty of imagination. 

The concept note begins with an ahistorical claim that Indians have been all over the globe since ‘time immemorial’ and, therefore, the idea of Bharat needs to be cherished! In its urge to find roots for modern democracy in ancient India, the concept note presents a muddled and distorted history drawing on features from European and British colonial writings on Indian village systems. 

The note reads, “In India, from the Vedic times itself, two kinds of states, janapada and rajya have been in existence. The Indian experience evolved its own form of governance at the levels of village and the central polity: (i) the federal/central political structures were delinked from the life of the community (village communities), and consequently (ii) village communities became self governing and autonomous, and (iii) developed a hierarchy of self-governing institutions, such as Panchayat and Khaps, that enabled them to remain unaffected by and large by the changing kingdoms/empires particularly those of invaders hostile to Hindu culture.”

This view of the Indian village community as ancient autonomous self-sustaining units free from external influence has long been a trope of European colonial discourse on India of the 19th century, spearheaded by the likes of Charles Metcalfe, James Mill, Mountstuart Elphinstone, Henry Maine and others.

As historian Ronald Inden argued in his book Imagining India, statements on Indian villages are one of the pillars of the imperial constructs of India. It appears that the Hindutva champions of our times, whose share in the anti-colonial freedom struggle is totally blank, have taken shelter in the semi-historical narratives of the sacred pristine past of ancient (Aryan) villages sought by the European colonists of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Also read: History Shows How Patriotic the RSS Really Is

This ossified and long-abandoned view of Indian history is combined in the concept note with the primordial attribution of Hindu religious and cultural identity centred firmly on the Brahmanical Vedic tradition. It would help if the authors of the concept note read the chapters on Hinduism and Village India from Inden’s book and see for themselves where they stand in relation to the European imperial narratives on India. The fact that in early India, there were traditions that challenged the authority of the Vedas and the Brahmanical schema of things did not occur to the protagonists of Hindutva ideologues at the ICHR who are keen to whitewash dissenting alternative traditions in early Indian history. 

The concept note tries to put forth the idea that democracy evolved in India from Vedic times and locates the chronology of the Vedas to 5000 BCE in the archaeological remains of Rakhigarhi and Sanauli. It collapses the two distinct cultures of Harappa and Vedic and presents them as a singular stream; a staple template of the Hindutva version of history from the days of V.D. Savarkar.

The concept note presents muddled puranic geography and labels of the first millennium CE totally ripped from the historical context of their usage and attributes a timeless perception to it. We are told that, “the Hindu mind from the beginning addressed the central question of how to weld this vast multiplicity that is India into a single larger community and from ancient times a geo-cultural definition has been given to this entity, rashtra, Bharata – the country which lies to the south of the Himalayas and the north of the oceans is called Bharata and the Bharatiyas are the people of this country.”

In a brilliant introduction to the collection of essays titled The Concept of Bharatavarsha and Other Essays, historian B.D. Chattopadhyaya had shown the need for a historically sensitive reading of such puranic categories and descriptions, which had a larger cosmographic design than any concrete geographic reference. Arguing that the early meaning of Bharatavarsha can be discussed and understood without any reference to Indian nationalism, Chattopadhyaya pointed out that the notions of ‘border’, ‘frontier’ or ‘foreigner’ were absent in the connotation of Bharatavarsha in early sources. 

Further, it was not the invasions which split the ‘self’ from the ‘others’; rather, the major divide in Indian society was perceived through the angle of varna or the hierarchical social order. The concept note is not only silent on this uncomfortable feature of caste divisions in Indian society but makes a lofty claim that “Indian people, infused with the spirit of equality, have had since the very Vedic times a lokatantrika-parampara.”

Also read: Hindutva and the Question of Who Owns India

Combined with the toxic othering of ethnicities and cultures labelled as ‘alien invaders’, the concept note goes on to depict institutions supposedly unique in character in ancient India. The ‘Bharatiya context of governance’ that the concept note puts forward identifies these alternative roots of democracy and governance merely in order to reinforce the idea that India is a mother of democracy.

M. Jagadesh Kumar – the chief institutional spokesperson of Hindutva in the university system as head of the UGC and the person responsible for the troubles of Jawaharlal Nehru University in the past as its vice-chancellor – has written to the governors of states to ensure that universities and colleges in the states observe the government’s diktat.

The circular from the Ministry of Education with the concept note prepared by the proponents of Hindutva at the ICHR clearly tries to project the so-called Bharatiya roots of the constitution and democracy in contemporary India by distorting the past and whitewashing the history of the anti-colonial freedom struggle. The most heinous crimes against humanity were committed against Dalits and women by the very same tradition – the Brahmanical Manu Dharmasastra – which led to its burning by Babasaheb Ambedkar and Periyar.

By tracing the roots of democracy on the eve of Constitution Day to a most undemocratic, religiously ordained social order, the BJP government is inflicting humiliation on millions of Dalits and other marginalised sections of the Indian population. Democracy, as Amedbkar argued, is not merely a form of government but essentially an attitude of respect for our fellow beings. On this count, the so-called Bharatiya tradition, as defined by the RSS and its proponents at the ICHR, is far from anywhere close to democracy. 

Instead of seeking pride from a distorted ancient past, the road to democracy lies in imparting critical historical knowledge capable of questioning the dominant power structures around us.

Rajesh Venkatasubramanian is a history teacher. He is the author of Manuscripts, Memory and History: Classical Tamil Literature in Colonial India (2014).