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Rewriting History

Updated: Jul 14


Image Credit: Wallpaper Flare


Intro:

“The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice.”

-Mark Twain


The above words hold reason, all the more, in today’s volatile times. With the air changing and ideological differences brewing more than ever, we can witness the rise of certain sections of society trying to bring into the mainstream narrative their stand of history; attempting to bring about a change in our rudimentary understanding of history. Theirs is a stance that brings to light the unacknowledged and unsung vignettes of our history, but also one which does not shy away from espousing opinions that, again, are coloured. But in the times when history finds itself mired in controversies, when the need to present non-partisan views seems much needed, do we need historians who seek to make amends to historiography retrospectively, who are equally, if not more than the historians whose opinions dominate the scene, culprits of trying to write history with their reckoning?


Presenting it as it is:

Distorted history can never make people fully aware of their past and hence their present would have a void that would need to be filled. History, in all its sum and substance, should be used to present the facts as they are, however vile as they may be. The task of a historian, daunting as it is, should neither be to airbrush the reality to suit his readers nor to hold in contempt past events or figures; it is only for the readers to judge and form opinions.


Although historians have a proclivity to blend history with their personal narratives, they should not try to manipulate the trajectory of the past events to bring forth a perverse narrative. History should be taught in its raw form, so that it becomes easy for us to learn from our mistakes, take pride in our culture, and accentuate the role of every person in our past, however small it may be. However, in our country, there has been a dearth of the perspective of the undermined historical figures or rather those who became undermined due to their lack of opinion. The changing political narrative seems to bring forth something along these lines.


It has been duly noted by the mushrooming historians, political thinkers and writers of today’s time that due to the various previous dispensations’ ideological and political inclinations, only a handful of rulers, freedom fighters, activists, etc. have been celebrated and given space in history. It would be no exaggeration to say that the selected few have been extolled so much so that the others, with no small contribution to our history, have been reduced to footnotes. For instance, even after studying complete Indian History in our schools, we don’t find in our books the details of the Haldighati Battle bravely fought by Maharana Pratap, or the struggle of Prithvi Raj Chauhan in the face of fighting the gory Ghori. Even more grossly under-represented are the leaders from Deccan and South India: Rajaraja Chola, Ahilya Bai Holkar, and Shivaji Maharaj, to name a few. So, in their bid to lay bare the inimitable achievements of the aforementioned personalities, historians are now calling for a change in today’s historical perspective.


Image Credit: Indica Today


The burgeoning writers:

A host of writers like J Sai Deepak, Sanjeev Sanyal, Vikram Sampath, Meenakshi Jain, Arun Shourie, etc., who due to their dissatisfaction with the mainstream historical narrative, have written books that seek to transform the readership’s prevalent opinion. Vikram Sampath’s voluminous biography of V.D. Savarkar has shone a light on his persona that remained unknown until now; Sai’s two books- ‘India that is Bharat’ and ‘India, Bharat and Pakistan’- remain bestsellers; Sanyal’s various books on India’s history like the latest- ‘Revolutionaries: The Other Story of How India Won its Freedom’- sheds light on India’s obscure yet significant freedom fighters. All of these and many more are in line to become the mainstream books on India’s lost history.


Writers and thinkers like these are trying to bring to the forefront “the idea of Bharat” which focuses on its long-lost cultures and values. They seek to evoke a profound sense of glory and pride in our past and lay bare the harsh and ugly truths that previously remained hidden in the fear that they may upset certain sects. In this quest, these writers question the surfeit of only Gandhi and Nehru in history textbooks; they question the inordinate space given to the Delhi-centric dynasties in having to learn all about their genealogy, reign, etc.; they raise doubts over how our textbooks showcase only the bright side of a personality cutting their flaws out and how those who dissented against the contemporary parties or governments were downplayed.


Why the space?

The emergence of such writers and their narratives in recent times can be attributed to the change in dispensation. Perhaps they may have been there in the arena for years, but it is only now that they have been given the safe space to assert their opinion with full force as we can witness. Also since studies of Indian history too consist of ‘Colonial’, ‘Marxist’, ‘Cambridge,’ and ‘Subaltern’ approaches, there is still a paucity of resources for India’s submerged past, thus the need for a fresh perspective. However, this paradigm shift is also politically motivated.


George Orwell in his work 1984 wrote, “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” It has been generally observed that only what suits the person in power, gets the leverage. History has mostly been written from the perspective of the victor. We come across many instances where when the theme of a book/movie/series etc. does not suit the authority, they ban it outrightly. Nothing can be gospel truth.


Rewriting or Whitewashing again?

Rewriting history also comes to the detriment of the common people. Even in writing history about the undermined heroes, there is a tendency to use this as an excuse to paint history in the colors of the ideology of the historian. Unearthing the past and forming opinions about it is one thing, but using those mistakes as a tool to pit one community against the other, another. Today, certain forces seek to use the alleged atrocities of the likes of Aurangzeb, Tipu Sultan, etc. as an excuse to pigeonhole the whole community as abusive. To try to use history to manipulate and fabricate and justify the actions of today brings a blot onto history itself.


After the pandemic, in the garb of easing the load of students, there occurred a systematic rationalisation of NCERT textbooks, the backbone of the school curriculum in many parts of India. Several references to the 2002 Gujarat riots, crucial chapters on the Mughal empire, poems, and references to the caste system were expunged. Several important references to the Delhi Sultanate which saw the pinnacle of art, sculpture, and architecture in India, were also deleted. This was one of the well-orchestrated attempts to portray India as glorious only in the ancient age and that which came under pillage, murder, and savagery during the medieval period. Moreover, information related to movements like Narmada Bachao Andolan, the Chipko Movement, the RTI movement, and the anti-liquor movement in Andhra Pradesh were also cut out.


This kind of biased selectivity does not foster the spirit of searching for facts and truth in students. There has been scientific evidence to show that India’s medieval period was a vibrant tapestry woven from threads of many cultures. In the words of the Indian journalist and author Tony Joseph, India was a “pizza” with several layers of toppings added over centuries, implying that India was a Hindu base with several layers of toppings of Jainism, Buddhism, Islam, and regional traditions. Audrey Truschke in her book- ‘Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth’-counters the popular image of Aurangzeb as a religious fanatic who desecrated many temples, by saying that: “The multifaceted king had a complex relationship with Islam, but even so he is not reducible to his religion. In fact, little is simple about Aurangzeb…”.


Countering the popular image of Aurangzeb as a perpetrator of atrocities, Truschke says that Hindus were treated as dhimmis, a protected class under Islamic law. Throughout his reign Aurangzeb’s policy was to ensure the well-being or Hindu religious institutions. For example, in the ninth year of his reign, he issued a farman to the Umanand Temple at Guwahati, confirming an earlier land grant and the associates rights to collect revenue; in 1687, he gave some empty land on a ghat in Benaras to Ramjivan Gosain in order to build houses for ‘pious Brahmins and holy faqirs’, and the list goes on. Similarly, Aurangzeb protected the Jain religious institutions by granting land at Shatrunjay, Girnar and Mount Abu. Aurangzeb destroyed temples, yes a handful of them, but it was his political astuteness rather than his religious beliefs that allowed him to raze temples, sparingly.


With India having the largest adolescent population, it becomes imperative for her to incorporate in her education policy a curriculum that is devoid of any bias, or any political agenda. Taking the example of Pakistan, it has been learned that the textbooks there refer to Islam on every critical issue; and require students to learn about only Muslim scientists and their contributions and make speeches on jihad. The result is that the young minds have been blighted so much so that they use sophistry to keep women in their burqas, oppress minorities, and teach religious zealotry in public. Hence, rewritten history, that again, does not bring to the table facts and truths is nothing but mere whitewashing that needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Thus, scrutinization, reasoning, and questioning of the government and its methods become the mainstay for the sustenance of democracy. John F. Kennedy rightly pointed out: “Without debate, without criticism, no administration and no country can succeed and no republic can survive”.



Conclusion

We need historians who dare to face the brunt of what would come about if the entrenched historical version is challenged and questioned.

We need them to make informed choices and decisions that concern our convictions and beliefs. Needed are people who prioritise facts, figures, and contexts over political agenda. However, in this quest of recovering the past, and rediscovering one’s roots, it is to be kept in mind that India is a potpourri of cultures, religions, languages, etc. and that she would be devoid of any flavour if any attempts are made in her history being used as a tool to further one’s interests. That all efforts that seek to tarnish the image of India’s secular and democratic sphere should be nipped in the bud. And, so as for the young minds to form opinions and beliefs on the past, it is first important for them to have their minds become a tabula rasa, a clean slate, one that is free from any preconceived notions or ideas. It can be only then that our country produces a repository of knowledge that is truly unbiased and wholly uncoloured.


 

By: Ananya Gupta

Ananya Gupta is a first year student of Political Science honours at Hindu College.

 

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