Itihaas: The row over Rao

By juxtaposing issues of faith with history, the new ICHR chief has caused an utterly avoidable controversy

What makes history the most abused of disciplines is the manner in which the ruling classes manipulate it. We have had a tradition of holy busybodies tinkering with the way the past is to be perceived to suit contemporary ends. It seems we are destined or condemned to repeat history as the battle over our history books is on us again.

With the appointment of Yellapragada Sudershan Rao as the head of Indian Council for Historical Research (ICHR), the battle of the 1990s is all set to be revived. Rao is not a famous name among historians and it is not easy to find his academic work on search engines that showcase global academic research. But all that would not have mattered if the ICHR chief had desisted from needlessly courting controversy by extolling the caste system and some other statements regarding the historicity of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana.

The sense of grievance over a “Marxist” interpretation of Indian history and livid with the so-called Macaulayite legacy, conservative ideologues in India have long asserted that Indians have been denied access to their own glorious past and Rao’s work is part of that project. As we delve into this particular enterprise, we notice the same notions of ‘Indianising’ historical perspectives that had caused so much debate in the 1960s.

The conservatives argue that in the history that is taught in Indian schools and colleges, the horrors committed by medieval invaders are understated and their positive influences exaggerated; the sins of secular politicians blurred out and the contribution of some of them over-emphasised. Also, Indians are forced to look at their past through foreign eyes, which leads to an inferiority complex.

As this argument is further refined, we are quite bluntly told that high school textbooks on many subjects are woefully inadequate. Examples of textbooks from the last decade have shown remarkable howlers, which we would laugh about if young minds weren’t exposed to them.

When otherwise articulate Indians argue about points of Indian history, they reveal a bias that one does not expect, but which exists beneath the surface and betrays the ignorance of content. Rao wants to highlight intellectual achievements of ancient, pre-colonised India and he is entitled to do that. But for that, does he have to praise the caste system? Does he have to emphasise that matters of faith are as important as reason, when precisely such a perspective leads to so many distortions?

In a social system like India, faith matters, of course, but as several people have pointed out, faith is part of a culture, it should not dictate history. Faith is about unquestioned belief; history is about facts and reality. Faith may lead one to believe that Rama was an ideal male; history may legitimately lead one to question if he existed at all — or if he was the product of very gifted writer’s imagination. Many in the country question if he was indeed the ideal male, but that is a different debate. Ramayana by all means is a great work of literature; it has enormous social significance — but is it history?

This is not to suggest that a literary hero cannot be inspirational. But historifying myths is a problem. If myths and history are not kept apart, the result can be a warped worldview, because the myths we believe in tend to be heroic, glorifying “us” and belittling “them”, and that leads to a perverse form of nationalism whose consequences — history shows us — are usually disastrous. The rationale of rewriting history books should not be to glorify the past and its logical extension is the kind of vandalism that we saw in 1992, when the Babri Masjid was torn down in Ayodhya.

Rao’s appointment has caused a furore in certain circles because it is perceived to be part of a grander plan aimed at re-imagining the past and making myths acceptable, to advance a particular agenda. It also means disregarding the inconvenient parts, which interfere with the master narrative.

We have seen how AK Ramanujan was pilloried because of his alternative renditions of the Ramayana. We have witnessed the attacks on DN Jha because he exploded myths about the ‘sacred’ cow. Disagree with Romila Thapar by all means, but please do not call her a foreign agent. Subjective outpourings do not behove those who hold exalted positions in the public domain.

(Pradyot Lal is a political analyst and commentator)

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