History should be a ground of contestation: David Washbrook

Updated - October 04, 2016 07:16 pm IST

Published - December 16, 2014 01:29 am IST

David Washbrook.

David Washbrook.

“Current attempts to rewrite history in India have “very little chance of being taken seriously,” given their unacceptability to “the great bulk of the [Indian] academic community,” according to British historian David Washbrook.

In an interview with V.S. Sambandan and A.R. Venkatachalapathy for The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy , Dr. Washbrook, who is Research Professor in South Asian History, Trinity College, Cambridge, U.K., said while history was “always being rewritten,” including in the U.K., the danger of only one version of history being established should be avoided.

History, he said, should be a ground of contestation. “One of the interesting things from a historian’s point of view is that there should be a contested history. The dangerous impact that comes from history is if there is only one version and it becomes popularly available to people. That is the thing to be avoided.”

India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru “attempted to bring a modern version of the state, as a westerner would understand it.” However, his version of secularism may not have allowed enough for the particularities and the distinctiveness of culture.

“Nehruvian secularism was extremely critical of all kinds of cultural markers because of their threat to divide India; but it neglected trying to construct an alternative set of cultural markers for an Indian national identity which could be widely recognised,” he said.

On the two different trajectories of the Dravidian parties in southern India and the parties backed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), in northern India, Dr. Washbrook, who has specialised in studying colonial southern India, was of the view that the Dravidian movement had suffered from its own successes and had lost a sense of its original trajectories. On the RSS, he said, the origins of Hindutva lay in western India but after the 1980s, Hindu politics, broadened out, and contained a response to “perhaps, one of the weaknesses of the Nehruvian dispensation: to give Indians a clear sense of cultural identity at the national level.”

In addition, “a constant emphasis simply on poverty and on struggle from below lost a lot of its appetite and appeal. I take what’s going on in Hindutva or with Hindu nationalism to be an attempt — at its best — to construct a cultural identity for Indians to give them a history and a sense of achievement of which [they] can be proud of,” Dr. Washbrook said. He also held out a caution against the risk of conceiving Hindu nationalism “in a very narrow, very sectarian, very divisive way.” There were, however, “alternative and other ways of defining India as a culture and a cultural nation.”

“It may be up to the Left to respond and to begin to think of ways in which it could construct a cultural alternative at the level of identity that would have the same kind of particular appeal,” Dr. Washbrook said.

( Full text of the interview can be accessed at >www.thehinducentre.com )

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