Coming to Terms with the Past: India: Latha Menon Deplores the Effects of Religious Extremism on Indian Society and the Writing of History

Article excerpt

ON JANUARY 5TH, 2004, a group of thugs ransacked the renowned Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune, India, destroying priceless manuscripts and artefacts. Their 'protest' stemmed from the involvement of some of the Institute's academics in translating manuscripts for the book Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India by the American historian James W. Laine, in which Laine allegedly made insulting remarks against their hero. Though partly driven by regional tensions, this attack illustrates several points relating to history, historiography, and recent socio-political developments in India.

First, it highlights the central role of irreplaceable material evidence in history. Second, it underlines the role of perceptions of the past in the concerns of the present, particularly those relating to identity. Shivaji was a Hindu king who successfully fought the forces of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, declaring himself king and establishing the powerful Maratha Confederacy; His story has become legendary.

The story of the Hindu Maratha hero's defiance and success against a Muslim king has taken on its own part-mythical life, so much so that the actual historical evidence seems secondary, troublesome and inconvenient. The past is dead and can be manipulated or, if necessary obliterated; the myth must live.

The final point concerning the Bhandarkar raid--is the extreme, whipped-up response against a Western historian. The history of India has for too long been interpreted, written, and thus, as Edward Said pointed out, in some way owned and controlled, by the colonialists. They, now widened to encompass all modern Westerners, cannot possibly be trusted to understand or interpret our history. There is no doubt that the Orientalists of the nineteenth century did frame and periodise Indian history in accordance with certain assumptions concerning the other, which coloured and constrained their otherwise impressive achievement in building a vast corpus of knowledge about aspects of Indian history and culture. Yet Indology has moved on since then. Western scholars of Indian history today are Far more sensitive to such assumptions, while remaining appropriately rigorous and critical in their analysis. Yet in the intensely Hindu nationalist climate that has pervaded India in recent years and that continues to flourish in sections of the Indian diaspora, even distinguished Indologists such as Wendy Doniger have been attacked in a knee jerk response for daring to critically evaluate Hindu texts. Those Indian historians who dared question the agenda of Hindutva or 'Hindu-ness' fared even worse. Internationally respected historians such as Romila Thapar have been threatened and vilified.

The origins of Hindutva go back to the early twentieth century. The term refers to the Hindu chauvinistic nationalist agenda of a number of interconnected organisations, collectively known as the Sangh Parivar, that range from the paramilitary to the cultural. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the broad political front of this movement, and was the leading party, in the ruling coalition that was defeated in the recent elections. The other two major bodies are the cultural arm of the movement, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the openly militaristic Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The Sangh Parivar has taken to itself the colour saffron. Once associated with renunciation, it is flaunted now as a symbol of Hindu pride and power.

Over the past dozen years or so, the growth and spread of Hindutva has been remarkable. Aided by a powerful propaganda machine and the wealth pouring in from Indians abroad, especially in the United States and the United Kingdom, the 'saffron brigade' sought to replace the secular, pluralist vision of Jawaharlal Nehru and other earlier nationalists with their own Hindu chauvinist concept of the nation and its past, and to indoctrinate the young with this conception. The unexpected defeat of the BJP in the 2004 elections is an encouraging reminder of the power of democracy, and of the resilience of Indian secularism. …