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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 45, New Delhi, October 24, 2020

Debilitating historicity: History as statecraft | Navneet Sharma and Anamica

Saturday 24 October 2020

by Navneet Sharma and Anamica

"If history and science has taught us anything, it is that passion and desire are not the same as truth." —E.O. Wilson

Those who don the historian’s hat are expected to unearth, collect, and present facts that make a coherent and cogent narrative. A historian also must have the historical sensibility and historical mind. Though history is known as the story of the past yet it is not a story but a reconstruction of the past based on pieces of evidence and sources. Before going into the appreciation of historical sensibility and historical mind of GD Bakshi and the invitation to him as a historian by the vice-chancellor of the university which is ranked numero uno despite dislike by the people at the helm, one should acknowledge that the students and faculty of Centre for Historical Studies, JNU have issued press releases condemning and distancing themselves from the organization of this event. Bakshi was invited to speak upon a book that he has written whose Kindle edition was launched recently at The Saraswati Civilization: A Paradigmatic Shift in Indian History. Bakshi’s book has claimed to launch ’a massive campaign to correct the ancient Indian history presented by the British, with facts and figures.’ The book’s description suggests that this is the ’authentic’ Indian history for which evidence, discoveries, and facts are brought together by the author with the help of sources ranging from satellite imagery, geology, hydrodynamics, textual hermeneutics, and DNA research. Bakshi had a long stint with the Indian Army and retired as Major-General. He is a well-decorated officer and has held important posts and positions in the defense establishment. It is astonishing how, despite his grueling career in the defense establishment, he could find time for his exhaustive and extensive research on ancient Indian history. In fact, he has also researched modern Indian history and has attempted to answer another question which has baffled historians for a long that Gandhi or Bose, who got the Indians their freedom. His numerous publications on varied concerns ranging from Mahabharata, China to environment and ecology can embarrass even any full-time social scientist. Bakshi’s vast experience in the Indian army must have contributed to his understanding of the nuances of battlegrounds, weapons, and fighting. However, neither his academic achievements nor his professional engagements qualify him enough to deliberate upon history and that too ancient history. History writing is a concerted effort and a research enterprise. A historian is expected to have historical consciousness, historical mind, and historical sensibility. GD Bakshi, who has no expertise on any of these, is an abysmal fact-checker like other Hindu nationalists and often dresses up mythology as history.

Historical consciousness is about being conscious of the historicity of the facts. A historian must be conscious of the difference between fact, fiction, and factoid. A fact is observed by a historian from the vantage point of the historiography that s/he is trained in and influenced by. Facts can be drab and dry but facts must be allowed to speak for themselves rather than a historian putting words into their mouth. A historian must be conscious that his/her ideological leaning is not compelling him/her to see factoid as fact. Jorn Rusen’s famous typology of historical consciousness not only indicates that how people think about history and themselves but also is about the pedagogical possibilities of historical culture. Rusen gives four categories of consciousness with historical constructions- traditional history, exemplary history, critical history, and genetic history. G. D. Bakshi seemingly believes in exemplary history in which the past is used to instruct contemporary action and belief. The search for the lost river Sarawasti/Sarsuti and the huge amount of money spent by the government since 2014 and the establishments of Saraswati Heritage Development boards by some states is not only about equating Harappan Civilization to Rigvedic society but also to conform the narrative of Aryavart and the Akhand Hindu Rashtra. One may agree with Tom Griffith’s observation that history can be constructed at the dinner table, back fence, or in the parliament or at the street and not just in the tutorial room or at the scholars’ desk. Though there cannot be any hierarchy in history constructed with these varied senses of space and temporality but the discipline of history must be informed by the methodologies which are more consistent and transparent. The search for Saraswati River and the idea of India as a migrant nation of Aryans has not only been debunked by scholars like Romila Thapar and Irfan Habib and they suggest that Saraswati may be derived from Haraxawati- a river in eastern Afghanistan. This space however cannot be used to settle an academic argument about the existence or non-existence of mighty river and its disappearance or the narrative synchronous to it as Rigvedic, but how this alternative narrative which is crafted by forgoing the difference between fact, fiction, and factoid is to evolve exemplary historical consciousness to pronounce once again the otherness of Muslims in India and also to legitimize the caste-Varna system which should provide an exemplary context to contemporary beliefs and must guide the government’s action.

A historical mind is seeped in history but it is not confined into it. A historian’s mind has to be an open mind where s/he must be ready to believe that, whatever narrative is made out by him/her of facts can be repudiated and revised. It is akin to the Popperian sense of treating every piece of knowledge as conjecture which must have refutability as its inherent characteristic. A historian must be eager to accept the multi-causality of the turn of events and explanation of them. A historical mind must be trained in historical thinking. Stephane Lévasque differentiates between two different ways of understanding history as ’memory-history’ and ’disciplinary-history’. Memory-history is about transmitting historical knowledge and is centered on facts and their veracity whereas Disciplinary-history is a procedural history where in the first question is why these are such facts and these facts only. An educational institution when invites a story-teller in the guise of a historian it is blasphemy to the Discipline-history where the process and procedure of construction of historical knowledge are more sacrosanct than the narration and the narrator. G. D. Bakshi may be a prolific narrator but mistaking him for a historian with a historical mind is like viewing P. C. Sorcar, the magician as another Einstein. Historical sensibility is an ability to discern along with responsiveness to the notion of time. Time is a continuum and is only studied in a fragmented manner to understand history better. The past is intertwined with the present and is impregnated with the future. If we believe that those who do not learn from history, they are doomed to repeat it on themselves then we must also believe that if we learn ’wrong’ history we are doomed to repeat it twice, once as wrong and then as right history. A historian must have this historical sensibility not to create wedges where there are none like between Gandhi and Bose or Nehru and Patel. This historical sensibility creates another wedge and caters to us-them politics and the rift between Hindus and Muslims. This further gets fuelled with the doctrine like Punya-bhumi and Pitra-bhumi given by Savarkar, which was to distinguish between religions which evolved and grew within the mainland India like Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism and the religions which are ’foreign’ to the mainland India like Islam and Christianity. What a mistaken historical sensibility can lead up to, we as a nation have seen umpteen times and most grievously in December 1992. This sensibility may also entail another lesson that history cannot be re-winded or cannot be undone.

It is a cliché that we write our own history. But it is something which is created with conflicts, revolutions, discoveries, and inventions. We are in a rush to defend our vantage points to look and reflect upon history while labeling them as colonial, nationalist, or subaltern. History is crafted with historiography but it is not that alone. History, as a craft, is weaved and resurrected by the state to push its own political agenda. The state artfully targets history in order to present a distorted account of the past to achieve its vicious agenda. Since the BJP government has come into power in 2014, it has attempted to saffronize the Indian history to make India de facto Hindu Rashtra. For this purpose, it has again kicked off the hunt for Saraswati River and Civilization, originally conceived by the Vajpayee-led government in 2003. Saraswati River has its mention in an ancient Indian religious text, the Rig Veda. By corroborating the existence of this Vedic River, the attempt is to trace the Harappan Civilization in the Rig Veda and eventually evince a glorious Hindu India that existed before Islamic invasion. The ultimate agenda behind this search is to establish the validity and reliability of sacred Hindu scriptures as a source of knowledge about the past and convert the mythology into history. This would help in bolstering Hindu nationalists’ claim that Hindus were the original inhabitants of India while further alienating Muslims and other minority religions of India. Such a self-authorized contorted version of history helps the party in distracting the masses from the legitimacy crisis that that the nation is encountering. There is a dire requirement for historians to refute this ludicrous stake and claim on ancient Indian history and present a much deeper and richer understanding of it. They also need to assert firmly that the study and interpretation of history demands a thorough training and critical inquiry into historical concepts and processes. Otherwise, the self-authorized right-wing version of Indian history will gradually destroy the secular and egalitarian fabric of India embedded in its Constitution. Thus, historians and history students, like those at JNU, should be aware and discriminatory; else they will not be able to save the fall from the grace of historical knowledge construction to indoctrination. The history student and the pedagogue must see through this craft or soon we will be learning that the Taj Mahal is actually a Tejo-mahalaya- a temple for Shiva.

(This article was partly published by The Indian Express with the title, ’Who is a historian?’ on 19 June 2020)

References

Madhukalya, A. (2016, December 6), ’Modi government picks up Saraswati from where Vajpayee govt left it’, DNA India. Retrieved from https://www.dnaindia.com/india/report-modi-government-picks-up-saraswati-from-where-vajpayee-govt-left-it-2280128

Rajendran, C.P. (2019, February 26), ’Saraswati: The River That Never Was, Flowing Always in the People’s Hearts’, The Wire. Retrieved from https://thewire.in/the-sciences/the-saraswati-is-a-river-that-never-was-and-flowed-always-in-the-peoples-hearts

Thakur, T. (2018, July 16), ’Located Between Fact and Fiction, ’Searching for Saraswati’ Is a Warning for the Future’, The Wire. Retrieved from https://thewire.in/film/searching-for-saraswati-film-review

Vishnoi, A. (2015, April 10), ’With BJP in power, the hunt for Saraswati river is on mission mode’, The Economic Times. Retrieved from https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/with-bjp-in-power-the-hunt-for-saraswati-river-is-on-mission-mode/articleshow/46870628.cms

Navneet Sharma, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor, Department of Teacher Education, School of Education, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala. He can be contacted at navneetsharma29[at]gmail.com

Anamica is presently pursuing Master of Arts in Philosophy from the University of Delhi. She has completed her graduation and post-graduation in Education from the University of Delhi, Delhi.

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