Writing a 'New' History to Justify the Sangh Parivar's Agenda

Politics over history cannot bear fruit for the Hindu rightwing unless a ‘villain’ is created and belittled.

A ‘joke’ in the Soviet Union during the late 1960s may soon get translocated to India, given all-out efforts of the current regime to write the country’s ‘authentic’ and ‘correct’ history.

In it, a Czechoslovakian student in the USSR in the aftermath of August 1968, when thousands of Warsaw Pact troops and tanks invaded his country and crushed “Prague Spring”, withdrew into a shell after a letter arrived from home.

“All fine, family and friends safe, and not picked up in the post ‘invasion’ crackdown?” friends asked.

When he told them that they were well, hostel mates countered: “Then what’s wrong?”

“The problem is that we have a ‘new past’ once again…On return, I’ll have to learn history all over again before getting a job.”

It was a not-so-unfunny ‘joke’ because the Stalinist practise was still fresh in minds of people. This March, it will be seven decades since Joseph Stalin, billed as a “man for whom power was all, terror a useful weapon, and deceit a constant companion”, died.

But he remains a role model for authoritarian or autocratic governments who use the same methods and refashion history to conform to the political demands of their increasingly controlling regimes.

This is currently most evident in India. For several years, Sangh parivar stalwarts, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat, Union home minister Amit Shah and several bespoke historians have called for a “new”, “correct”, “Indian” or “Hindu” history.

At a recent book launch, Shah let go a long harangue against history allegedly written from the perspective of “angreziyat” while emphasising the necessity of presenting the “right message of history”. He made the same points on previous occasions too, most famously in Varanasi in October 2019.

Also read: 19th Century’s Hindu Nationalism Was Flawed But Had Purpose. Now, We Have Only Hate

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s rise was greatly enabled by fostering the imagination of a denigrated ‘other’ (deemakh or white ants for instance). Likewise, the Sangh parivar justify the need for ‘rewriting’ history from India’s ‘point of view’ by vilifying the ‘dominant’ historical narrative of the national movement.

Previously only medieval history was under attack, now the historical narratives of the modern period, especially the freedom struggle, is being criticised too.

A remodelled past is required by the Hindu rightwing because the present politics of hate has to be justified. Shah is evidently one of the new history ‘gurus’. Swapan Dasgupta, the former Rajya Sabha member and journalist, in a column invoked the home minister’s speech repeatedly and emphasised the need to “correct a flawed historical narrative”. He further contended that India attained independence not just through the path of non-violence.

One does not need to be a historian to be aware of the surfeit of research and books on revolutionary nationalists that were written by scholars and writers, including journalists.

Ashutosh Gowariker’s film Khele Hum Jee Jaan Se on the Chittagong armoury raid for instance, was based on journalist Manini Chatterjee’s book.

Bhagat Singh has long been considered a hero and part of folklore much before the Sangh parivar began attempting to appropriate him. Books and essays emphasising a Marxist influence on him and disagreements with the Congress have been in existence from much before the Sangh parivar thought of taking over his legacy.

The Hindu rightwing thrives by creating the imagination of a conspiracy against the nation and nationalists. Shah and others like Dasgupta and Sanjeev Sanyal (he authored the book launched by Shah) have bolstered the discourse of ‘conspiratorial’ neglect of ‘real’ history.

They have kept ploughing the contention that ‘genuine’ heroes were neglected because roles of the ‘chosen few’ had to be glorified. In this process they clubbed all non-Sangh affiliated historians in one lot even though they quite often disagreed with one another because they were not driven by a political agenda like today’s custom-made historians.

Politics over history cannot bear fruit for the Hindu rightwing unless a ‘villain’ is created and belittled. In this instance, the target is a section of the so-called history establishment. These scholars and historians are endlessly accused of being willing partners in convergence in the agenda of the history and political establishment.

However, this is precisely what is being done now. Shah is a key member of the current political establishment and the mushrooming bespoke historians and commentators are fawning over him and other leaders while they collectively postulate on the type of history the country requires.

Also read: New Son et Lumière at Red Fort Plays Down Gandhi, Nehru Role in Freedom Struggle

Actually, the Sangh parivar and these neo-historians writers and commentators aligned with it are acutely hamstrung by the near-complete absence of Sangh political ancestry within any form of the national movement, non-violent or otherwise. In the three major flash points in the course of the freedom struggle – Non-Cooperation Movement, Civil Disobedience Movement and Quit India Movement, the Sangh parivar conspicuously stayed away.

V.D. Savarkar is the only exception for his association with revolutionary groups and individuals, especially when he provided intellectual motivation to Madan Lal Dhingra for assassinating Curzon Wyllie (an act Gandhi criticised).

But a ‘different’ Savarkar emerged after being interned in Cellular Jail in the Andaman Islands. It is not surprising that the current regime rarely encourages examination of Savarkar’s political activities after he was convicted in 1911.

The appropriation of the well-known revolutionary nationalists, such as Bhagat Singh, by the Sangh parivar is aimed at filling this blank. It is imperative for them to disparage the dominant non-violent stream of the anti-colonial struggle. Violence and violent acts in history have to be romanticised because aggression and hostility against an ‘enemy’ is essential for consolidation of the Hindu rightwing.

It was no surprise that in a planned interview, Mohan Bhagwat justified all acts of aggression and/or violence by Hindutva extremists against minorities by stating that “Hindu society has been at war for over 1,000 years – this fight has been going on against foreign aggressions, foreign influences and foreign conspiracies”. and that “it is but natural for those at war to be aggressive”.

The medieval period of Indian history has been consciously depicted as an era when Hindus were humiliated. The period Bhagwat referred to has been long dubbed by Modi as “1,200 saal ki ghulami”. In his path-breaking 2014 campaign, Modi’s vocabulary sought to establish the UPA government as one which had its linkages with kingdoms of that period: Dilli ki Sultanat was his term for the Manmohan Singh government.

History matters in every moment of the present. Ultra-nationalism in any form, anywhere in the world, does not have a long history because the notion of nation evolves with time. The India of today did not exist even as late as before independence in 1947, not to mention that Sikkim became part of India in 1975.

Also read: History Warns That Altering a Constitution’s Basic Structure Leads Down a Dark Path

In her recent lecture, Romila Thapar recalled British historian, Eric Hobsbawm’s coinage that “history is to nationalism what a poppy is to a heroin addict”. One might add that nationalism is the glue that binds the intolerant against any form of dissent and a ‘new’ history is being used to justify the Sangh parivar’s definition of its own brand of nationalism and nationhood.

The BJP’s electoral successes since 2014, and its encouraging prospects ahead, demonstrate that the narrative can be reversed only after large sections of society enrol for a de-addiction camp.

Hope surfaced in this realm of gloom when Amitabh Bachchan, the high priest of popular culture, spoke against the now popular and oft-made genre of historical films for being “couched in fictionalised jingoism along with moral policing”.

It was possibly due to the impact of the Big B’s words that Modi issued a stern message to cadre to refrain from making needless remarks on films. Whether his advice is heeded or not, for want of disciplinary action against the guilty, is a different matter.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is an NCR-based author and journalist. His latest book is The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India. He has also written The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin.