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.