As a professional historian, I am deeply concerned about the fate of the National Archives of India, especially the proposed demolition of its Annexe building that contains valuable historical documents. That’s my disclaimer. But I do not support the political diagnosis offered by a section of fellow historians in this case.
The argument that the restructuring of the National Archives of India is a strategic move that aims to dismantle the apparatus of evidence-based history in favour of myth-based politics of nationalism is not entirely invalid. But it is over-simplistic and politically counterproductive. This argument stems from the old secular history/communal politics binary that emerged in the early 1990s and eventually led to a series of political disasters, including the demolition of Babri Masjid.
In 2021, those old approaches and anxieties may not serve liberal historians well, especially as the construction of history is now following a different methodological impulse and trajectory. The Nehruvian scholars must return to how Jawaharlal Nehru himself viewed history.
Hindutva project and historical sources
Hindutva politics, especially in its contemporary form, has posed a serious challenge to all forms of critical thinking and knowledge production. It proposes a new imagination of India’s past that does not merely reject the secular version of Indian history but also offers a completely different meaning of historical evidence and sources.
According to Prime Minister Narendra Modi: “…India’s history is not what we study before examinations…Historians could not see how the society… reacted…As a result…many things of the history were left behind… the soul of any land is represented by the feelings of the people there…Political and military power is temporary, but the public sentiments expressed through art and culture are permanent. Thus, preserving our rich history… is very important for…every Indian.”
Evidence-based history is contrasted with feelings, emotions and sentiments of people living in a geographically marked territory. The belief is given priority over evidence/source simply to reassert Hindu victimhood. This is precisely the line of reasoning that Hindutva politics followed in the Babri Masjid case.
It does not mean that this Hindutva is not interested in cultivating evidence-based arguments. Quite astonishingly, the pro-Hindutva intellectuals assert that the sources/evidence must be seen as hard-core scientific facts. The purpose of history, according to them, is to offer an objective value-free account of the past. This scientific orientation goes well with the belief-based formulations in an interesting way. Just look at how the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) ordered digging about two decades ago in Ayodhya and once again at Kashi-Gyanvapi in Varanasi. The Hindutva quest is not to rely just on emotions but to marshal material evidence that serves those emotions.
There have been various attempts in recent years to write alternative histories from the Hindutva-oriented point of view. But, these histories are not presented as any kind of authoritative historical accounts. The primary function of these narratives is simply to address a different kind of fact-lovers or rather neutral English-speaking middle class public.
There is an interesting division of labour. The construction of an aggressive emotion-based Hindutva past is meant for the wider public consumption simply to nurture what is jokingly called the WhatsApp University. The so-called neutral ‘scientific-objective’ histories are written to produce a backup—a justificatory argument in favour of Hindutva so as to discredit the idea of critical questioning.
Modi, and for that matter other BJP politicians, do not care about historical accuracy; they care more about capturing the popular imagination. They often make factually incorrect comments (for instance, Modi’s claim that he went to jail during the liberation of Bangladesh or his comment on Alexander-Porus war in Bihar). The pro-government authors like Sanjeev Sanyal, Chetan Bhagat, Madhu Kishwar or Surjit Bhalla, who always ask us to be factual and objective, do not react to such statements. Their strategic silence actually contributes to a larger political objective: the invention of a new fixed and permanent history of India based on fluid retellings, which might eventually be observed as a “scientific truth”.
Source-obsession vs critical perspective
Hindutva’s opponents, especially those who describe themselves as liberals, fail to understand the operative mechanism of Hindutva history. They envisage Hindutva’s project entirely as irrational, ahistorical and even unscientific exercise. An impression is created that the historical records are self-explanatory; hence the destruction and/or relocation of these sources would mean the destruction of historical knowledge. The Nehruvian project of history is appreciated as the most objective evidenced-based version of India’s past on these grounds to refute Hindutva.
This liberal critique is problematic. The historical documents do not speak for themselves. They become sources only when a framework of history is provided. Nehru was very clear about it. In 1949, when the question of an authoritative and comprehensive history of the freedom movement arose, he wrote: “Everything depends on the individual or individuals who will be put in charge of this work….This requires two qualities at least. One is an emotional and intellectual appreciation of what has taken place and the other is high literary ability…. it seems to me that the first step is to collect material.” (File no. 40(60)/49-PMS dated 26 February 1949)
Nehru further wrote to Maulana Azad: “I do not want second rate or shoddy work to commemorate our great struggle. Nor do I want a panegyric or a mere record of event. The critical faculty has to be exercised and things seen in perspective…it means a survey of all aspect of national activity during the past two generations and more especially during the last 30 years. That collection would become the nucleus of national museum.” (Note to Education Minister, 26 February 1949)
It is clear here that Nehru, unlike many Nehruvians, was not obsessed with sources at the cost of emotions. For him, historical imagination was more important than, if not as, the availability of sources. That might be the reason why he was able to write The Discovery of India during his imprisonment at the Ahmednagar Fort.
The liberal critique of Hindutva history suffers from a strange victimhood syndrome. Their intellectual laziness does not allow them to respond to Hindutva with a refined and constructive imagination of India’s inclusive past. They always take refuge in old ideas of India proposed by Nehru, Gandhi and Ambedkar almost 70 years ago to counter Hindutva’s New India.
We do not need Nehru’s idea of India anymore. But we really need Nehru’s optimism, his historical method and his adherence to inclusive politics.
The author is Associate Professor, CSDS, New Delhi. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)