From Tipu to Savarkar to Nehru: our history is littered with stories of misinformation, and they gripped the nation in 2022 too

The author of the recently-released book, ‘Don’t Forward That Text!’, on the right way to recount history by diving into the full facts

Updated - December 28, 2022 11:20 am IST

Published - December 27, 2022 11:30 am IST

(L to R) Jawaharlal Nehru, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and Tipu Sultan.

(L to R) Jawaharlal Nehru, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and Tipu Sultan.

“The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice,” wrote Mark Twain in Following the Equator. Then why bother studying it? Let’s put a pin on that question for now, we’ll return to it in a bit. For now, let’s examine two pieces of historical misinformation that gripped the nation in 2022.

Tipu Sultan ruled the kingdom of Mysore from 1782 to 1799.

Tipu Sultan ruled the kingdom of Mysore from 1782 to 1799. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

One concerns Tipu Sultan, a character who seems to have singlehandedly divided Karnataka along communal lines. Earlier this month, the State announced its intent to rename Salaam Aarti — a ritual initiated by Tipu in a Mysuru temple — to a more Hindu-sounding Aarti Namaskara. Why? Because Tipu was an Islamist zealot who killed and forcefully converted thousands of Kannadiga Hindus, so claim Karnataka’s saffronista. 

Question is, was he? Unfortunately, history abhors binaries. So, the answer is, he did force 70,000 Coorg Hindus into Islam and that number comes from Tipu’s biography Sultan-ut-Tawarikh. But the answer also is that he personally patronised Hindu temples and defended them against Hindu raiders of the Maratha Confederacy, a notable example being the monastery of Shringeri, according to Surendranath Sen’s seminal Studies in Indian History. So who makes the judgment call and on what grounds?

The other story involves Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, who has been a recurrent theme in India’s sociopolitical discourse since forever. A two-part biography released last year resurrected an energetic debate on his infamous mercy petitions, some arguing treason, others strategy. Much spotlight also shines on the petitions’ contentious sign-off: “I beg to remain your most obedient servant.”

Savarkar’s mercy pleas

V.D. Savarkar (centre) at the opening session of All-India Hindu Mahasabha Conference in Calcutta, 1939.

V.D. Savarkar (centre) at the opening session of All-India Hindu Mahasabha Conference in Calcutta, 1939. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

The problem with such debates is, history gets reduced to an amenable ideological prop. Because when you zoom out and drop all political baggage, you learn that despite the harrowing conditions at Cellular Jail in the Andamans, Savarkar was one of only three who wrote such petitions — out of well over a hundred. You also learn that the servile sign-off was far from a uniquely Savarkar feature; Gandhi did the same in a 1920 letter to Viceroy Chelmsford. But the ideologues on both sides continue to read pragmatism — one in Savarkar’s petitions, the other in Nehru’s proximity to Lord Mountbatten.

Although the debate isn’t exactly new, Hindu nationalists fired a bombshell revelation of how Motilal Nehru pulled strings to get his son out of Nabha jail in 1923. Again, history suffered. Few bothered to dive deeper, an exercise that would’ve clarified that the only strings the father pulled was to plead to the Viceroy with a commitment that Jawaharlal would stay out of Nabha’s politics. Not for Jawaharlal’s release but for an audience with him. A cursory research would’ve led one to Sarvepalli Gopal’s Nehru biography that conclusively counters the, shall we say, myth.

Jawaharlal Nehru unveils a portrait of his father and former Congress president, Motilal Nehru, in New Delhi, 1956.

Jawaharlal Nehru unveils a portrait of his father and former Congress president, Motilal Nehru, in New Delhi, 1956. | Photo Credit: PIB

History suffers in two key ways — obfuscation and distortion. Obfuscation made the obsequious signature exclusively Savarkar’s when it wasn’t, distortion turned Motilal’s audience with his son into a petition for release. But the saga doesn’t end here. Once out of Nabha, young Jawaharlal promised to stay out of Nabha’s politics. Only three years earlier, Savarkar had made a similar promise to stay out of India’s politics. Which of the two is strategic and which one treasonous? And who makes that judgment?

Distorting history

While we know Savarkar wrote four letters pledging his troth to India’s colonial overlords in exchange for clemency, do we also know that one of those was for all inmates and not just himself? Do we know that yet another, his last, was only a demand to enforce a royal proclamation that ordered blanket clemency to all political prisoners? Such details hurt ideological narratives, and are conveniently elided.

Such distortions are not even a novelty of our times. Our civilisational history is littered with stories that exaggerate, diminish, and invent with ideological, communal, and political motivations. These go as far back in time as you’d like them to. From Tipu’s zealotry to zero’s origins, and from Aryan homeland to River Saraswati, there’s a startling amount of bias-driven misinformation in every story (see my work Don’t Forward That Text! for fact-checks on these and many others). Such is the weight of misinformation that they’ve created a whole new discipline that serves no other purpose than to titillate, intoxicate, and inflame — pseudohistory.

The past isn’t mutable. The only right way to recount it is to recount it all. Objectively and honestly. We must be equidistant from and dispassionate about all characters should we hope to achieve that objectivity. Nuance is the enemy of rhetoric, which is what makes it indispensable to the pursuit of knowledge. 

We often get too emotionally attached to our stories, thus coloring our understanding. Instead of lessons, we seek pride and shame. Such attitude helps politics, not erudition. And that brings us back to the pin we dropped at the beginning. Why study history? Because it has lessons.

The writer is the author of the book, Don’t Forward That Text!, and of an audio series on India’s forgotten stories. Twitter: @schandillia

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