Frontline Volume 18 - Issue 15, Jul. 21 - Aug. 03, 2001
India's National Magazine
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The political abuse of history


Handcuffed to History: Narratives, Pathologies and Violence in South Asia, edited by S.P. Udayakumar; Prager-Westport, 2001; pages 216, $64.95.

IT is no surprise that many of the problems that South Asian countries face today have a lot in common. This is because, on the one hand most of these countries were colonies of the British and, on the other, there is a lot of overlap in their religious and cultural norms. Some of them have been artificially divided in the name of religion but share much in common. It is this understanding that formed the basis of two symposia conducted by the University of Hawaii in 1994 and 1996. The chapters in this volume under review were papers presented in those symposia.

The grouping of themes in these essays is logical. The focus of most of these is the abuse of history by religious nationalist movements, and some of them delve into the shared commonalities of the region - conflict and governance, history and politics, culture and philosophy, and so on.

Udayakumar correctly points out that "as communal conflicts occur in inter-group situations, a study of such conflicts should investigate the concerned groups' ideologies, process of identity development, and historical context within which political assertions of such identities manifest" (p. 6). It goes without saying that there are various versions of history and different social groups choose and project a version that suits the interests of their collective. As such, the transition of history from the chronicling of the deeds of kings by the court historians in the pay of the kings, to being an academic discipline is a process that occurred along with the secularisation process. Since in the colonies secularisation took place against the wishes of the colonial masters, it had to confront the versions propagated by them. The colonial powers popularised types of 'history' that were not only lopsided but calculated to serve their 'divide and rule' designs. The major streams prevalent then were utilitarianism, orientalism and nationalism. The overlap between the utilitarian and communal forces is too obvious to be stated. Utilitarian James Mill's major work on Indian history was prepared to train Indian Civil Service aspirants. At that time, the British were aiming to win the loyalty of Indian subjects away from the Mughal rulers who preceded them. Mill came up with the Hindu, Muslim and British periods, thus opening the doors for further communal interpretations of history. It is noteworthy that Mill could turn a convenient blind eye to the rule of Buddhist kings, since Buddhism in modern India was not a major force until 1956 when Dr. B.R. Ambedkar and a large number of his Dalit followers converted to that faith. British rulers were identified not by religion but by their national identity. This view of history had no place for the ordinary people. Of course, to each his or her own history, be it nationalist, Marxist, subaltern or of social historians.

But the political misuse of history was done mainly by 'religious nationalists', and it led to a feeling of communal consciousness. Interestingly, the pioneer of the Hindutva ideology, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, was among the first to see the importance of a particular version of history for his politics. So much so that he went on to write not only Six Glorious Epochs of Indian History but How to Read and Write History - Particularly by a Hindu Sanghatanist. Undoubtedly, the Hindutva volunteers took it seriously enough to propagate the Hindu communal history from area to area through their shakhas (branches), where young boys are trained to become swayamsevaks (volunteers) for the cause of the Hindu nation. This continuous indoctrination of young minds has ensured that Hindu communal history became the 'social common sense' of society and made it the base of their political campaigns of hatred of the "other" - the major minority, Muslims.

The three major issues from the past and the present that have communalised the social consciousness in India have been dealt with in the book. One of them relates to the ancient period, "Poetics and Politics of Mahavamsha" (by Wimal Dissanayake), which connects the ethnic violence in the Sri Lankan context with the 'first comer' theory; one to medieval period, "Historicising Myth and Mythologising History: The violent 'Ram Temple' Drama" (by S.P. Udayakumar), which deals with myths from the medieval period that not only whipped up mass hysteria around the Ram temple but also led to the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the following anti-Muslim pogroms; and the one relating to Kashmir, the major sore point left behind by the senseless Partition of the country, "Faces of Beloved: Rerouting the Tragic History of The Kashmir Issue" (by Daanish Mustafa and Viren Murthy). The overlap in the subcontinent's problems is so much obvious in the case of the 'First Comer', used more in the context of Sri Lanka, though in the Indian context also the assertion that Aryans came from nowhere and were the original inhabitants of this land has been the major assertion of Hindutva 'historians'. The post-Partition communal scene is best seen through the formation of Bangladesh after the violent split of the erstwhile East Pakistan. The latter buried for good the 'two-nation theory', that religion can be the base of the nation state. In a way these articles, though written in different styles, are a good supplement to each other. They explore issues in depth and provide rich insights into the underlying theme which connects up the book.

Udayakumar, in his comprehensive introduction to the book, not only builds overt bridges among the essays but also gives a glimpse of the threat which South Asian countries face from the communal problem. The different quotes he has used give adequate indication of the use of past imageries in building up campaigns against the minorities.

The essay by Mark Juergensmeyer initially sounds to be a bit off track from the main theme of the book. A careful reading of the essay and the supplementary quotes from Hindutva ideologues, in particular M.S. Golwalkar, draws out the importance of this issue in the scheme of things planned by the politics of communalism. Golwalkar's beliefs show how the politics of Hindutva looks at the caste system as the benign accompaniment of Hindu society, which reached the glorious heights during the reigns of Shivaji, Harshavardhan and Pulikeshin. Hinting that it is wrong to blame the caste system as the bane of Hindu society, he emphasised that a 'glorious Hindu society' can be built without attacking this system.

Juergensmeyer's piece shows the centrality of the caste system in Indian society. Of the two theories of untouchability, the first one states that the lower classes became outcastes because of the nature of their work. The second theory, attributed to Dr. Ambedkar and other Dalit leaders who strove for liberty, equality and fraternity in Indian society, states that the untouchables were aboriginal people conquered by invading Aryans over four millennia ago. This theory is opposed by the practitioners of Hindutva politics, who suggest that in order to protect themselves from being forcibly converted to Islam some communities escaped to the jungles and became poor and therefore untouchables. This concoction of Hindutva ideologues is fast gaining acceptance in some sections of society. Juergensmeyer examines the concept of Dharma, which is very caste specific, and also outlines the efforts of the Bhakti (devotional love) saints who tried to sidetrack the caste hierarchy by building parallel communities. Bhakti saints like Kabir and Nanak defied the Dharmic (Brahminic) concepts of salvation and propagated Bhakti, which was personal and devotional and required none of the trappings of Hindu rituals and caste. He makes an important and simple observation - that none of the Bhakti saints was a Brahmin, that the large following of these saints came from low-caste untouchables, and that untouchables all along had something of a religion of their own, a nameless body of practices and beliefs for which the movements of these saints provided an expression.

In the afterword, the editor sums up the issues involved well: "The current struggle in India is not between the constitutional tenets of modern India and 'Hindu Communalism'. It is between the cultural and religious pluralism of India and ideological homogenisation project" (p. 192).

While the issues are well delineated, the social base of the issues is missing in all the essays. Despite this, the compilation is remarkable in terms of the breadth of topics covered and the depth at which the contributors have gone to make their case. It surely is a rich contribution to the efforts to understand the conflicts in South Asia.

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