Having spewed venom and cast aspersions on the intellectual credentials of historians recently nominated to the Indian Council of Historical Research, the once dominant Left-liberal school of historiography finds itself repenting at leisure as its own performance comes under public scrutiny. Though the arraigned historians have held their peace, cursory revelations of academic and financial misdeeds suffice to send the protagonists scurrying for cover. Already there are desperate pleas for entente. There is also a tacit admission of defeat as confessions of false scholarship dispel the intellectual darkness.
A look at the alleged Aryan invasion best illustrates this point. After raising generations of students on the ‘knowledge’ of the invasion, the scholars admit it was a terrible mistake. However, a scrutiny of their ideological motivations and the political benefits that accrued to their patrons tells a different story. According to this theory, the Aryans – projected as the original usurpers of India – were none other than the casteist and communal ancestors of upper caste Hindus, who were thus kept on the defensive vis-à-vis the rest of society.
Let us now see why it has taken five decades for our secular apostles to admit that the basic premise of their study of ancient history was false. Incontrovertible evidence from Harappan sites excavated by Indian and foreign scholars has established the indigenous evolution of the civilization, while scientific examination of the bones found at Mohenjodaro has unequivocally ruled out invasion or massacre as the cause of the city’s decline.
There is now no denying that India was a united civilisation in its collective consciousness long before the British bestowed it with a political perimeter. The raj ruled over only a third of the subcontinent at the height of its power, and we owe our current political unity to the redoubtable Sardar Patel, who could effect this not merely on the strength of his will, but because the old collective consciousness had legitimacy in the eyes of the people. This fact is anathema to our intellectuals, who quickly allied with Nehru and sought to shape a perception of history that promoted amnesia about Patel.
Unfortunately, opponents of the Nehruvian school have not been able to articulate why they disagree with its perspectives, and tend to digress towards peripheral issues, such as the critique of secularism. Since they simultaneously claim that Hinduism is by nature secular, it is not easy to understand what they wish to contest in the Left-liberal view of history.
The crux of the matter is Nehru’s attempt, supported by Left-liberal intellectuals, to realign India from its natural spiritual moorings towards a mundane and pragmatic society, based on his impressions of socialist Utopia. In pursuit of this goal, he erected a system that smothered the new nation’s innocence of spirit between a rigid bureaucracy and a state-controlled economy, throttling free enterprise and free thought, and disempowering the ordinary citizen. The rising mass consciousness stimulated by the freedom struggle was quickly squashed in the grim daily struggle for survival.
The intellectual establishment ably assisted this enterprise by presenting India as a victim of divided and disparate peoples, which British roadways and railways had somehow woven into a political entity, of which Nehru was now king. Brutally ignoring the unity of spirit and consciousness, Marxist historians projected the multiplicity and plurality of tradition as proof of hostility and division within society, as if unity ceases to exist when multiplicity is manifested.
India, however, keeps her own rhythm, and by the process of karmic maturation, these sterile intellectual structures have come under strain at the first gust of the winds of change. An adherent of the JNU-Aligarh-Delhi University school of historiography laments that “a combination of ideology and, above all, clientelist, and factional politics, came together to define a veritable Establishment, which set about defining and defending agendas from the writing of school textbooks all the way to deciding which monographs would be translated into the 16 national languages at ICHR expense.” This should silence Leftist historians who now wish to pretend that the ICHR had virtually no role in their intellectual lustre.
Notwithstanding the questionable vibrancy of the subaltern school in the eyes of some scholars, I feel a more honest history could be written around the results of archaeological finds, a most effective method of corroborating or demolishing historical accounts. This is how in 1971, in a major triumph of Indian archaeology, KM Srivastava overturned the claims of raj historiography and discovered Kapilvastu (birthplace of the Buddha). That he did it in the face of stiff opposition from the entrenched intellectual czars is a telling commentary on our commitment to the truth about our past.
Left historians are apprehensive about studying the history of ‘kings and dynasties’, on the specious plea that this inhibits the study of underlying socio-economic structures. I believe this was a ruse to divert attention from the unbroken continuity of the spirit of India, and to counter the consciousness aroused by the nationalist movement, which drew sustenance from historical figures like Maharana Pratap, Shivaji, Laxmi Bai, Ahilya Bai, and identified certain dynasties with the nationalist urge. Under such state-sponsored historiography which served a political purpose, Tilak was unpalatable, Aurobindo simply ignored, and Bankim Chandra pushed under the carpet.
The major Indian dynasties were reduced to cultural or geographical entities and pushed into museums and tourist circuits, with the result that an ordinary person could get only a fragmented view of the nation’s history. Citizens visiting prominent historical or religious sites found local history and evidence at odds with official textbooks, and could never reconcile the two. The only major kingdom to get some justice was the Mauryan. But here too, founder Chandragupta who lived according to the precepts of Arthasastra, received short shrift in favour of his grandson Ashok, in the mistaken belief that Buddhism marks a cardinal break with Hinduism and enjoys the moral edge over it.
We live in a time of compelling change, of a great transition towards a future, the direction of which is yet to unfold. We can no longer establish our nationhood on fragile falsehoods; that experiment has failed. The challenge for historians today is to ensure that the history they record truly reflects the complex dynamics of the past, and does not corrupt the present with a static version of a fossilized truth. What the nation needs acutely is a larger opening to the light, through which the mind can follow.
The Times of India, 30 September 1998