Mohan Guruswamy | Rewriting history, with an open mind or empty mind?
Historical revisionism is the process of rewriting history to correct the misinterpretations of the past or for an ideological purpose. Plato wrote that “those who tell stories also hold the power”. The corollary to this is that those who hold power inevitably want to re-interpret the old stories. British scholars, who seemed genuinely interested in how this country evolved, wrote most of modern India’s history. Indian rulers were generally more concerned with their own periods, and often change of dynasties meant loss of continuity. Indians also did not leave historical records, nor did they treasure them. Charles Allen in his book Ashoka: The Search for India’s Lost Emperor writes about how the story of India’s greatest emperor and his dramatic life had to be “prised out from the crevices of the past”. Amazing, isn’t it, to realise that till about two centuries ago Ashoka, now so central to our understanding of our perception of ourselves, was lost to our consciousness? It was people like ICS officer James Prinsep who deciphered Brahmi and reintroduced Ashoka to us.
As a young student in a Catholic school, in recently independent India, the first history lessons imparted to me told that story, particularly of the period of the last occupation by the British, somewhat differently. According to this, British rule was a most benign and beneficial period for Indians. This could even be true for social reforms like the abolition of sati and the building of great canal systems and the railways happened during this period. The unification of India into one great political entity also happened in this period. Above all, southern India came under Delhi’s imperial rule for the first time.
In 1957, the centennial celebrations of India’s First War of Independence happened and I suddenly discovered that what my history textbook was having me believe was wrong. This historical revisionism is legitimate as it set out to correct the narrative by looking at the same events with a different perspective. It is difficult to be entirely objective when writing history. But when history is rewritten without being subject to the rigours of academic and scientific discipline, it would be nothing short of charlatanism.
In recent years, the Sangh Parivar’s historians have been seeking to revise history to suit some of their ideological peculiarities. Their intellectuals are collectively at work to debunk the Aryan invasion theories (AIT), which have been amply evidenced by linguists, archaeologists and of late by geneticists. Their theory is that Aryans migrated from India. In their view: “The long-puzzling remains of Harappa and Mohenjo Daro, for example, discovered after the AIT was developed, suggested practices similar to those of contemporary Hinduism, undercutting the belief that Hinduism was a religion imported from the outside into the subcontinent.”
A 2009 study carried out by David Reich, a professor of genetics at the Harvard Medical School and the CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad, based on an analysis of 25 different Indian population groups, found that all populations in India showed evidence of a genetic mixing of two ancestral groups: the Ancestral North Indians (ANI), who are related to Central Asians, Middle Easterners, Caucasians, and Europeans; and the Ancestral South Indians (ASI), who are primarily from the sub-continent. The researchers, by measuring the lengths of the segments of ANI and ASI ancestry in Indian genomes, were able to obtain precise estimates of when this population mixture occurred. They found that it started 4,200 years ago — the Indus Valley Civilisation was waning then, and huge migrations were occurring across north India, which might have caused the inter-marrying. Clearly there were people here, but they were not Aryans. But this runs counter to long-cherished Sangh Parivar notions of who we are.
Whatever be the version of history that emerges, this or that of Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib and others, what will still remain is a history focused on the people of the Indo-Gangetic plain. And that is my real grouse. Take for instance the two volumes of The History of India by Percival Spear and Romila Thapar. Of the 24 chapters, 21 are about the peoples who either lived in or kept conquering the Indo-Gangetic plain.
South Indian history, that is fairly distinct and certainly more glorious than the tale of defeat after defeat in northern India, gets only three chapters. And mind you, the Deccan region now accounts for almost 40 per cent of India’s population. Little is told about regions like Odisha and Bengal while Assam hardly figures. Of course, as can be expected, there is not very much written about the original and autochthonous pre-Aryan and pre-Dravidian people. Even today, our indigenous people account for about 12 per cent of the population and are concentrated in specific regions.
If Spear and Thapar are reticent about acknowledging the role of other regions in the shaping of modern India, A.L. Basham and S.A.A. Rzvi, in their two-volume effort The Wonder That Was India, have even less time and space for other regions and their contribution to the composite culture and the multi-dimensional character of the Indian nation. Rizvi’s volume covering the period 1200-1500 AD is so single-minded that it is entirely devoted to the Muslim rule over parts of India. Quite clearly, if Indian society has to be inclusive, all its various peoples must share a common perspective of the past. This is not so at present and hence, to my mind at least, the history textbooks need to be rewritten.
What then needs to be debated is what should this history be, for the facts cannot be altered and much as the Sangh Parivar may like to do so, Babur cannot be wished away. But will common sense triumph over the RSS’s genetic memory? Unlikely, for from what one hears the made-to-order history that is being written has the Aryans and Dravidians, both, as indigenous people, if not one and the same. This will then leave us wondering why Brahui, a language still spoken by certain tribes in Balochistan, is considered by philologists to be a Dravidian language?
What about the work of linguists the world over who trace all modern Indo-European languages to one proto-language now called the Nostratic language with its origins in Central Asia? Can all this be wished away?
So, by all means rewrite our history. That task is long overdue. But the question is whether the commissioned historians have open minds to get it right and keep the ideological clap-trap out of it? I doubt it.