“The progressive secularisation of texts under the Nehru-Marxist consensus has ensured that most Indians have been badly severed from their own roots and ancient knowledge. Attempting to correct this balance is hardly the same as majoritarianism or ‘saffronisation’ in the negative sense.” - R. Jagannathan
Critics of the Modi government have always believed that the BJP — as an affiliate of the Sangh Parivar — has a “saffron” agenda. The initial statements made by the new HRD Minister, Smriti Irani, and the new Chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), Yellapragada Sudershan Rao, seem to have confirmed the suspicions of card-carrying “secularists” in this regard.
I find most of the criticisms meaningless for the simple reason that “saffronisation” seems to be, by definition, wrong, even without defining the term clearly. Since nobody has volunteered a definition, I will do so.
Saffronisation can have three possible meanings or implications. One is the narrowest one — which is the imposition of a majoritarian ideology to write a new history that supports this majoritarianism. We are yet to see anything like this in the pronouncements or acts of either Irani or Rao.
Two, “saffronisation” could be a corrective or counter-point to the current view of history. And, three, it could be an effort to acquaint the majority community itself with its past — something that has been systematically denigrated in this country in the name of a synthetic secularism.
There could be other definitions, but for now I have defined it my way. Of these three definitions, saffronisation is a problem only in the first case — and that too, only in a limited way.
Before we start to examine whether the Modi government is at all going to “rewrite history” and “saffronise” it, let us debunk one bit of nonsense straightaway. The very allegation of “saffronisation” contains within it the guilt of the accusers. It tells us what they have been doing for years is rewrite history “their way”.
You can rewrite history in the saffron way only if you believe what is currently called history is “the right way”, with unchallengeable “facts”. Our current rendering of history is, in fact, a version written in the post-independence period, when the Nehruvian-Marxist consensus was that history should be “secular”. So when the Left attacks the Sangh for trying to evolve a “nationalist” version of history, they are effectively admitting that they had a “secularist” project where history had to be seen through their lens – and their lens alone. They were the ones who rewrote history.
In the “secularist” rendering of history, the contributions of ancient Indic civilisations – from the Vedic age to the time of the Buddha and Mahavira and the age of Vedanta – must be dismissed as minor or criticised as Brahminical and savagely inegalitarian; the extreme iconoclasm that came with Islamic invasions must be categorised as mere aberrations; and heroes must be found outside the Hindu tradition to make history truly “secular”. Hence the extreme eulogisation of Akbar as a secular hero when most of pre-Islamic history has been largely secular.
This is not to say we need to wallow in a past history of perceived wrongs, nor am I trying to invalidate the Marxist way of looking at history. But, by that same token, there can be a Sangh way of looking at history too. It is not an illegitimate enterprise.
A thief will always divert attention to others so that his own thievery goes undetected. This is what those accusing the government of attempting to rewrite history are trying to do: evade responsibility for their own rewriting of history by showing up someone else’s attempt.
As Vivek Dehejia, economics professor at Carleton University, Ottawa, wrote in Mint newspaper some months ago: “We have inherited a Victorian conception of history, foisted upon us by our colonisers, that the telling of history consists of uncovering certain ‘truths’, that these truths in turn are based upon uncontested facts, and that these may thus be woven into the tapestry of a tale whose veracity cannot be questioned without appearing to be either retrograde or revolutionary. Modern scholarship turns this view on its head. History is, rather, the telling of a story, the creation of a narrative, which involves the careful selection of facts one deems pertinent and an argument (explicit or implicit) about the causal relationships that bind those facts together into a compelling tale.”
Once again: If there can be a secular version of history, there can be a Sangh version too. A saffron version of history can balance the Marxist version which, anyway, is not going to go away.
Then, there is the question of Smriti Irani’s alleged exertions to rewrite school textbooks with more material from sacred Hindu texts like the Vedas and Upanishads. I can’t see how this can be wrong, especially if it is not meant to rubbish any other text or community.
The progressive secularisation of texts under the Nehru-Marxist consensus has ensured that most Indians have been badly severed from their own roots and ancient knowledge. Attempting to correct this balance is hardly the same as majoritarianism or “saffronisation” in the negative sense.
Sidin Vadukut, writing in Mint newspaper on July 4th, has no problem with this aspect of Irani’s efforts. He writes: “Teaching ancient texts in schools, for what it is worth, is a good idea. Both religious and secular texts are important storehouses of a civilisation’s history, culture and intellectual development. Yet I cannot recall a single ancient text of any variety that I was properly exposed to during my schooling. Yes, I was well-drilled on the existence of the Vedas and the works of assorted ancient scientists and Sangam literature and all that. But could I quote a single line from any of them, let alone with contextual awareness? Nope.”
This leaves us with the final charge: that Sangh loyalists are being planted on the Indian Council of Historical Research, a fact reported with subtle derision by The Telegraph recently. The headline to the story is: “Mahabharat historian gets research reins.” The impression one gets is that somebody steeped in mythology is now going to redirect history — which is for real historians.
The initial paras of the story start in the same vein: “A retired history professor who has written articles arguing that stories from the Ramayan and the Mahabharat are truthful accounts of events that took place has been named chief of the ICHR, the government agency to promote historical research. Yellapragada Sudershan Rao, whose interests include Vedic literature, Sanatana Dharma and Bharatiya Sanskriti, set the tone for his three-year tenure after taking charge on Saturday.”
So, a retired professor can’t head the ICHR? And does an expert on India’s two best-known epics automatically make himself ineligible for a post involving historical research?
And did he really say that the Ramayan and Mahabharat are truthful accounts of events? His exact words were this: “The stories of the Ramayan and the Mahabharat cannot be termed a-historical just because there is not enough archaeological hard evidence. Excavations cannot be done in many places since people are living there and you cannot evict them. A lot of historical material has come through cultural, anthropological, archaeological and ethnographic studies in the last 60 years about the continuous Indian civilisation. The findings can be compiled by researchers. I think the ICHR should support historians interested in doing work on these aspects.”
This is hardly the same as claiming that everything in the two epics is historical fact.
I am not trying to say Rao and Irani will end up writing or researching the “right” history, but surely they are entitled to do so. If Middle Eastern sites can be excavated to find proof of Jesus’s existence based on Biblical claims, is looking for fact in the Ramayan and Mahabharat necessarily a dubious exercise?
Whether what Smriti Irani and Rao will end up doing will be right or wrong we will know only when they actually show us what they do. Right now, all talk of “rewriting history” and “saffronisation” is a load of bull. The government’s critics are crying wolf too early. – Samachar.com, 5 July 2014» R. Jagannathan is currently Editor at Web 18, which is part of Network 18. In a journalistic career spanning 35 years, he has edited several national general and business publications, including DNA, Business Today, Business World, Business Standard, Indian Management, and Financial Express. He blogs at Newthink.