The study of history has always been contested territory, as it should be. There are always multiple interpretations of the past, and most professional historians would often have disagreements on the interpretation of an event or a phenomenon from the past. But what they would agree upon is the need to establish the facts about the past through a rigorous methodology that bases itself on social science approaches. Union Home Minister Amit Shah, in a seminar at Banaras Hindu University, on Thursday spoke about the need to “rewrite history” from an “Indian point of view” and went on to ask, “ who is stopping us from amending history ”. Historical events can indeed be rewritten if new facts emerge about the past or there is new evidence that challenges previous interpretations. But Mr. Shah’s call to “rewrite history” is predicated on specific, pre-determined outcomes and cannot be seen in isolation from his regime’s and his political organisation’s overall world view. The Hindutva-oriented right wing glorifies India’s ancient past, largely through a literal reading of epics and religious texts, and views the “medieval period” negatively as little more than a narrative of invasion by outsiders. This blinkered view of the past actually flows from a reductionist approach to the world in terms of religion-centric identities based more on faith than on facts.
True, other approaches towards history are not without ideological moorings. But modern historiography must be aligned to social science where methods rely on evidence to build upon findings and interpretations to reconstruct the past. In historiography, new interpretations are created by consistently questioning extant scholarships. Unfortunately such rigorous methods that base themselves on social science are anathema to those promoting the Hindutva world view. Modern historiography views epics and scriptures as just one part of the vast corpus of material open to scholarship, which include, among other things, inscriptions and archaeological findings. This is perhaps why Mr. Shah asks for history to be rewritten without getting into a dispute with other existing approaches. His exhortation to historians to create more knowledge on the legacies of the Maurya, Vijayanagara and Gupta empires, and the rule of Maratha warrior-king Shivaji, among others, could indeed be well taken if the exercise engages with existing historiography without promoting a free-floating alternative narrative formed around pre-conceived notions of past glory and civilisational hubris.