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The BJP wants to rewrite history so that its politics can be all about ideology

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In the desperate rush to make factual history out of our grandmother’s stories, these culture warriors denigrate something far more powerful – the power of imagination.

A recent Reuters report has confirmed as fact what most already assumed. The RSS, the ideological fountainhead of the BJP, wants to rewrite the history of the nation.

A committee of scholars has been set up without much fanfare and its goal is clear from the minutes of a meeting in New Delhi this January: “to use evidence such as archaeological finds and DNA to prove that today’s Hindus are directly descended from the land’s first inhabitants many thousands of years ago, and make the case that ancient Hindu scriptures are fact not myth.”

The alarm bells are sounding.

Historian Ramachandra Guha tweeted George Orwell’s famous saying. “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” Guha said, “Originally meant for Stalinists, now entirely applicable to Hindutvawadis”.

It’s not a surprise. The BJP is firmly in power. It’s flush with victories in states where it had little presence. It’s manoeuvred its ways to power in states where it has not won the majority vote. Why should it not want to rewrite the past in a way that suits its ambitions?

The RSS has never been shy about claiming, as Reuters puts it, “that India is a nation of and for Hindus” and challenging a “more multicultural narrative that puts modern-day India is a tapestry born of migrations, invasions and conversions”. This does not mean non-Hindus are not welcome. They just have to learn that they are here by the grace of Hindus.

As Tathagata Roy, the governor of Tripura, lately in the news for blessing statue vandalism, once tweeted while worrying about Bengal’s demographic mix — “Overwhelming Hindu majority is ESSENTIAL to maintain a multi-religious society & secular state.”  RSS ideologue Swaminathan Gurumurthy essentially said the same thing when he told Rediff, “We have Hindu values, Hindu customs, Hindu philosophy, a Hindu way of looking at all religions as acceptable… India is secular because it is Hindu.”

RSS spokesman Manmohan Vaidya unequivocally told Reuters, “The true colour of Indian history is saffron and to bring about cultural changes we have to rewrite history.”

The urgency of the project is obvious. If the BJP could trace its antecedents to a party that had also been at the forefront of the fight for India’s Independence, it would have proudly done so. But it cannot, no matter how big a statue it erects to Sardar Patel. That is why it needs to look further back into history to create a “Hindu first” version of Indian history where its ideology can occupy centre stage. Shashi Tharoor, author of the book Why I am a Hindu contends that “part of the problem with the Hindutva brigade, is that their notion of Hinduism is profoundly based on an inferiority complex. They see Hindus as having been invaded, oppressed, defeated, and humiliated for a thousand years. So from their point of view, this is now a chance to hit back and assert themselves.”

The project now to establish Hinduism as the default history of India, rather than merely its majority religion is perfectly in keeping with this new assertiveness.  As part of that project, the government wants incontrovertible fact. That is why it’s a priority to search for the mystical river Saraswati, to date archaeological sites and prove the battle of Mahabharata actually happened and DNA test human remains.

Culture minister Mahesh Sharma told Reuters, “I worship Ramayana and I think it’s a historical document. People who think it fiction are absolutely wrong.” But he betrayed his primal insecurity, the inferiority complex Tharoor alludes to, when he added, “If the Quran and Bible are considered  as part of history, then what is the problem with accepting our religions texts as the history of India?”

That’s telling. In an interview about the power of imagination mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik said, “There is a lot of low self-esteem in people who want to prove that their sacred books are not imagined.”  He cites as an example the Christian movement for a search for Noah’s Ark. “In the same way we are mimicking this cult of historicity and we want to say our stories are real,” said Pattanaik.

Honestly, there is nothing wrong whatsoever in archaeological testing to figure out if the battles of Mahabharata and Ramayana actually happened. The problem lies in what Pattanaik calls the “cult of historicity”.

Thus Narendra Modi sees ancient plastic surgery in the head of Ganesh or genetic science in the story of Karna being born outside the mother’s womb. In the attempt to ground our flying chariots to hard reality, we forget to marvel at the imagination of those who could write ancient texts about flying chariots without having seen them. “In today’s world imagination is a bad word,” said Pattanaik. “You are not allowed to imagine. Everything has to be real, whatever that means. And real is that which is measurable.”

In a sense, Mahesh Sharma and his committee are saying that for his faith to be real, it must be measurable through archaeological remains and a mega budget. Reuters says his culture ministry has an annual budget of $400 million.

If the Ramayana is shuddh desi history, as Sharma would like to prove, a Valmiki is just a documenter of that history, a reporter rather than a visionary. But why not marvel at the imagination of the Valmikis who conjured up Jatayu birds that fought with flying chariots and monkey gods who moved mountains? In the desperate rush to make factual history out of our grandmother’s stories, these culture warriors denigrate something far more powerful — the power of imagination.

Sandip Roy is a journalist, commentator and author.

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  1. No other developed nation makes such a hue and cry about vilifying and denigrating its own history. The British openly claimed that “the key to subjugating India was to subjugate her self-pride and traditional systems of governance, economy and faith”. Funny that is never even brought up to national attention. Makes it abundantly clear where the funding for our ‘secular’ journalism comes from.

  2. In the author’s opinion the British version of India’s culture and religion is the right one because he seems to hate India and its culture. The British, al most all authors and historians came to India to study its religion and philosophy as masters. For them casual comments of Indian culture were the Gospel.

  3. “Reuters says his culture ministry has an annual budget of $400 million”, that doesn’t mean that the ministry is spending all that money only on this team and its work. Is it not on the part of author deliberately trying to mislead by inferring that this team got tons of money to dispose at will to come up with some crazy stuff. This is kind of attitude that the Right wing in India trying to fight. Even the history as it is written today was thoroughly funded by the left wing. Please done mention that also.

  4. I am not sure if BJP is being desperate to rewrite the history, but I can see that the authors desperation in trying to suppress any new evidence that can be found by this team since it may not fit his view of a secular India. India’s cultural past be very much a Hindu culture and India can still be secular (secular: gov equidistance from all religions and caste, not appeasing all religions and caste). I can believe the intelligentsia of this country are worried when a team of Archeologist, DNA Expert, Geology Expert and Sanskrit expert working scientifically trying to find the facts. Does it mean that they are purposefully hiding the facts from the common people since it does not suite their world view. Could the team be biased, possibly, but the current history is also biased or a orientalist history which need to be questioned.
    Kudos to Modi and team for challenging the biased history. Its time the invasions and migration theories based solely on linguistics (as per my it is not science) be question with the full force of modern day scientific technics.

  5. I am not to sure what stories your grandmother has told you but here I have two quiz questions for you: Can you name all the Mughal kings from Babur to Aurangzeb? I am sure you can. Now can you name any six Chola kings without doing a Google search? Be honest. The history that has been taught to us is basically Delhi centric and of one family, Nehru/ Gandhi, one person Mohandas Gandhi, one path to freedom, Ahimsa etc. There is no harm in relooking if what has been force fed to us, is all that there is to it. And yes, honest journalism requires credible points from both side, not a one sided, biased version.

    • “honest journalism requires credible points from both side, not a one sided, biased version.” Which is why the author has attempted to understand why people like yourself and the culture minister etc are in the process of rewriting history by speaking with other politicians and theological authors and understanding the opposite perspective. And yes, the Chola Dynasty is quite prominently covered in our history books. When has the right wing attempted to understand the centrists or the left wing on the other hand? The right wings answer is to basically delete the mention of anything other than its icons from history. Any social reformer who has attempted to reform the religion and make it more egalitarian would in the future be deleted as well.

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