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Some Thoughts on the Statement Issued by 46 Signatories against so-called Leftist Historians


I take issue here with a few of the 7-point statement issued by “46 academics” against “Leftist historians”, the full text of which was published by The Hindu (“ >Full text of statement issued by 46 academics against "leftist" historians”, Updated: November 18, 2015 03:16 IST ) I quote verbatim (in italics, including the numerical sequence) of the points made in that statement and and follow them with my response to each.

“2. A near-complete erasure of India’s knowledge systems in every field —philosophical, linguistic, literary, scientific, medical, technological or artistic — and a general underemphasis of India’s important contributions to other cultures and civilizations . In this, the Leftist School has been a faithful inheritor of colonial historiography, except that it no longer has the excuse of ignorance. Yet it claims to provide an accurate and “scientific” portrayal of India!”

In fact, it is the other way round. Most of the historians whom the signatories obviously make reference to without naming them, have constantly (in most of their writings) critiqued the colonial legacy of branding Indian histories within neatly defined categories of “Hindu”, “Muslim” and “British” periods. Calling them “inheritors” of the colonial historiography should be seen best as a joke. A wide range of scholarship over last many years on archaeology, numismatics, iconography, architecture, music and dance and literature have certainly not underplayed any of these aspects of histories of India: in fact there have been both celebratory and critical studies, so there is no generalised, singular history on any of these aspects, and should not be. These did not come from the stable of ‘Right-ist’ historians. As far as India’s contribution to other civilisations and cultures goes, every nation in this world can lay claims to having given something to others. Historically speaking, ideas have travelled with people and we cannot say exactly who gave what to whom, but larger political influences and historical linkages between what are today nation-states but were earlier empires, republics and chieftainships, played a role in these exchanges. Who can stake a claim to Sufi ideas today, for instance? And if we speak of mathematics and science, can we ignore the contributions of the Persian or Arab world or the world of the Native Americans of the past to these?

“3. A denial of the continuity and originality of India’s Hindu-Buddhist-Jain-Sikh culture, ignoring the work of generations of Indian and Western Indologists. Hindu identity, especially, has been a pet aversion of this School, which has variously portrayed it as being disconnected from Vedic antecedents, irrational, superstitious, regressive, barbaric — ultimately “imagined” and, by implication, illegitimate.”

There was no ‘continuity’ between Hindu, Buddhist, Jaina, Sikh culture, as if it was a seamless flow of history without contestation, revolt, ruptures, and contradictions of time, ideas and influences. The Buddha and Mahavira, in fact, founded an idea against the very idea of god or god-hood and caste, and stressed on human action. The Charavakas went a step further in propounding a materialist school of thought. The Jaina and Buddhist religions were counters (expressly so) to the Vedic ritualistic religious ethic and the idea of non-violence was a counter to the violence and extreme consumption (of what would today be called ‘natural resources’) inherent in the offering of sacrifices. The Buddhist and Jaina texts are pretty specific about their points of difference with the Vedic-Sanskritic theistic religions. Guru Nanak included various streams of thought (including Sufi) and ideas within his idea of god. At the other end, certainly Indian history is larger than a narrowly defined Sanskritic-Vedic- Hindu history. A wide range of scholarship (in India and abroad) has emerged on understanding communities marginalised through time and history in India. If the Jainas and Buddhists were to be questioned or engaged with in true seriousness of scholarly engagement, they will tell you stories of their marginalisation and ‘erasure’ by the dominant ‘Hindu’ tradition. In fact, you have evidence of legal battles from the colonial times by communities such as the Jainas who did not wish to be categorised as Hindu (and this information comes from members of the Tamil Jaina community as it does from records of court cases even in the colonial period).

On the other hand, there is no universal monolithic ‘Hindu’ identity, and these are things you would only understand if you travel within the country and engage with diversities that face you. One of the discourses that lends substantiation to this is the one on many Ramayanas, which in fact, acknowledged the sheer diversity within the so-called Hindu tradition, which gave so many interpretations to an epic, each different from the other, and each celebrated. If the Jaina Ramayana were recited today, it would surely cause a violent uproar. As for the dalit discourse, there are several dalit movements across the country who will swear against the imposition of a singular Hindu tradition and culture complex on them, their food culture and their gods and goddesses. We all know as to who ultimately became the largest in numbers, and perhaps we should also wonder as to whether the population also reveals something as to why some are minoritised and some become the majority; is the dominant a mere coincidence of history or is it constructed consciously, politically and economically? Many tribal communities in India actually oppose the destruction of their homes and livelihoods by so-called ‘development’ projects. The Gonds in fact have filed legal petitions to include their Gondi religion as a separate religion, distinct from the ‘Hindu’. Whose majority history and economics is imposed on whom is a hard fact which a plain reading of government statistics can prove. The destruction of tribal homes and massacre of dalit homes is a fact, as well. Tomorrow, writing this history will also be considered a crime. India’s histories (for there are several histories as there are communities who have indeed not been represented by mainstream histories) have also been violent, exclusivist, and many things else than simply glorious, golden and all-embracing. In fact, the golden, all embracing, glorious periods in human histories (not India’s alone) may be fewer than the violent, hegemonising ones. It depends on what our questions to our histories are and whose histories are we to write – ones of the victors or the vanquished or the oppressed and silenced and oblivious to the mainstream.

“4. A refusal to acknowledge the well-documented darker chapters of Indian history, in particular the brutality of many Muslim rulers and their numerous Buddhist, Jain, Hindu and occasionally Christian and Muslim victims (ironically, some of these tyrants are glorified today); the brutal intolerance of the Church in Goa, Kerala and Puducherry; and the state-engineered economic and cultural impoverishment of India under the British rule. While history worldwide has wisely called for millions of nameless victims to be remembered, Indian victims have had to suffer a second death, that of oblivion, and often even derision.”

The British colonial period has in fact been critiqued by most historians targetted in this statement. British colonial regime’s hegemonising language, destroying forests, rivers, communities (most importantly tribal communities) has been written about far more by historians in the recent past than any other history. We also know for a fact that the Indian state’s idea of ‘development’ in fact continued many of the oppressive policies from the British (we even continue to have Sedition laws, for instance) and not even BJP has had any problems with these laws. Colonial perceptions of rivers and forests have continued to be followed verbatim almost by the Congress as much as by the BJP-NDA regimes. Yes, indeed, the victims who are usually not remembered (not because of the historians being targetted here as being ‘Leftists”) are the Manipuris who continue to battle with a draconian law called AFSPA; the dalits who often get killed in states like Tamilnadu, Haryana, Maharashtra and elsewhere, Muslims who are targeted and killed. Tribal communities have been targetted time and again in the economic battle for resources across the country. What to speak of Jaina and Buddhist histories erased continuously even today, and their places of worship being converted and their religious leaders (especially Digambara Jaina naked monks) being ridiculed and disrespected? Who has kept up the idea of India as a diverse nation and who forces a universal monolithic model to India as being only “Hindu’ and nothing else is for all to see. The Tamil Jainas still remember their persecution by the Saivite ‘bhakti’ tradition and destruction or conversion of their sacred sites into Saivite ones are visible even through a cursory glance at these sites in today’s Tamilnadu. The ‘Muslim” ruler as a “tyrant” is a false notion propagated by the RSS-VHP-BJP combine, endorsed by the signatories of this statement. There is no universal “Muslim” as there was no singular kind of Muslim ruler. Here there is a definite erasure of histories of communities such as the Arab traders (not kings or emperors) who came into Kerala, stayed behind, intermarried and lived peacefully with the local communities. Not all Muslims came to conquer India. Even among rulers there have been Muslim rulers who contributed to the larger tradition of Indian music, architecture and literature. The signatories do not seem to be aware of the regional cultural diversity among Muslims. Speaking of the “intolerant” Church, in fact, there were several attacks on Churches and pastors carried out by extreme elements of the larger ‘Hindutva’ bandwagon. This writer had recorded (in 2014) a statement from some arrested in Telangana who openly claimed that they had done so to teach a lesson to the Christian priests (see http://www.vikalp.ind.in/2014/02/silent-attacks-hate-campaign-against.html). Staines and his children were burnt alive in Odisha many years ago and Christian nuns were raped in UP many years ago. Who raped them and who murdered them? What about these pages of our histories? State-engineered impoverishment of people through displacement is happening also under the present BJP rule (of course being a consolidation and expansion of what began with the Congress-led UPA) with schemes to increase FDI in coal mining, retail, easing of land acquisition rules and speaking of manufacturing hubs. Imperialism of one kind may have ended but economic imperialism / bullying as a concept is yet to go.

“5. A neglect of tribal histories: For all its claims to give a voice to “marginalized” or “oppressed” sections of Indian society, the Leftist School has hardly allowed a space to India’s tribal communities and the rich contributions of their tribal belief systems and heritage. When it has condescended to take notice, it has generally been to project Hindu culture and faith traditions as inimical to tribal cultures and beliefs, whereas in reality the latter have much more in common with the former than with the religions imposed on them through militant conversions.”

Suddenly the tribal communities and their histories are invoked! Tribal histories in fact were brought to the mainstream not by RSS-BJP but to a large extent by the Subaltern school of historians followed by several others (not part of the Right). While there is no universal ‘tribal’ history nor should there be any attempt to build one, considering the diversity in social, economic and political situations of tribal communities in India (the communities in Chhattisgarh or Telangana or Andhra Pradesh cannot be equated with those in Manipur, Meghalaya, or Mizoram), yet, by and large their cultures are unique and not part of the Hindu mainstream dominant culture. Remarriage, elopement, consuming beef, pork, etc, freedom to choose their partners, egalitarian ethos are some of the cultural aspects found in some tribal communities (as documented and recorded) even today, which would never be accepted by the Right at any time. In fact, the attack on their cultures and thereby histories are coming from the present discourse on food, ban on eating beef, and may be tomorrow there will be ban on several other things that are considered sacrilege to the mainstream dominant ‘Hindu’ culture. Incidentally, the earliest political effort to understand and mobilise the strength of tribal communities happened – whether correctly or insufficiently – from the Left in India (from the time of the freedom movement), for which records are available. Alluri Sitaramaraju, for instance, was neither a Right-wing historian nor politician. The Rampa revolt was hardly a Right wing enterprise. Shaheed Bhagat Singh was influenced / inspired not by Hindutva but by the Marxist tradition and that is a part of history that cannot be negated unless the records are burnt. “Long Live Revolution” and “Down with Imperialism” were some of the words in the statement of Bhagat Singh before the Bench at the Lahore High Court.

We are yet to have erased some of these memories but one is scared of what erasures face us in near future and of what kind and of what volume, considering that the statement ends as follows:

“While we reject attempts to portray India’s past as a glorious and perfect golden age, we condemn the far more pernicious imposition by the Leftist School of a “legislated history”, which has presented an alienating and debilitating self-image to generations of Indian students, and promoted contempt for their civilizational heritage. The “values and traditions of plurality that India had always cherished in the past” are precisely those this School has never practised. We call for an unbiased and rigorous new historiography of India.”

But since I do not grant them their last word, let me end by saying that indeed, more than ever before, a stronger and more united struggle against bigotry and statist history writings and intellectual sycophancy are called for in today’s times, instead of self-censorship and silencing.

(The author is Fellow, IIAS, Simla and author of When Godavari Comes: People’s History of a River (Journeys in the Zone of the Dispossessed). Views expressed here are personal.)

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Printable version | Jan 29, 2020 10:34:47 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/webexclusives/some-thoughts-on-the-statement-issued-by-46-signatories-against-socalled-leftist-historians/article7906123.ece

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