In his last days Napoleon Bonaparte, now Britain’s prisoner on the remote island of St.Helena (1815-21) and slowly being poisoned with arsenic, wrote to his son Francois — by his second wife the Austrian princess Marie Louise — exhorting him to study history “for that is the only truth!”
After Napoleon died, Marie Louise, answering the call of duty, married the Duke of Parma while Francois, the titular king of Rome, lived in Vienna. One does not know how much history Francois studied in his twenty one years, but if one were to go by what was written about his father in Europe soon after Waterloo, he would have discovered that written history is the version of the victor and far from the whole truth.
History invariably is written and rewritten to serve the political and ideological cause of the ruling elites. No wonder Winston Churchill said: “Gentlemen, history will be kind to us — we will write it!”
Take Indian history as is being taught in our schools today. It is the history of the vanquished. It is mostly a chronological scroll down of events in the Indo-Gangetic plain.
The textbooks usually start with the Indus Valley civilization and after that remain largely focused on the consecutive onslaughts and occupations of India from the northwest. Like the Aryans, Greeks, Bactrians, Huns, Afghans, Persians, Arabs, Uzbeks, Mongols and Turks — not necessarily in that order — all of whom entered through its northwest and stayed to leave their respective imprimaturs on India.
The other part of the story covers the European era and India’s freedom struggle, which is mainly the story of the Indian National Congress. These invasions, subjugations, prolonged residence and assimilation broadly constitute the history of India, whoever it is written by and for, that is imparted 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 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 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.
On the converse side, today’s heroes like Tipu Sultan were cruel and callous tyrants, and what happened in 1857 was a most perfidious mutiny in which English women and children were raped and murdered by rampaging hordes of mutinous soldiers and freebooters.
In 1957, the centennial celebrations of the First Indian War of Independence took place and I suddenly discovered that what my history textbook was having me believe was wrong. And I was relieved to know that Tipu Sultan, though a trifle harsh on Hindus, was not a bad fellow at all.
After Sanjay Khan’s TV serial, he evolved as a true secularist and a motley bunch from Calcutta claiming to be his descendants are hoping to turn their accident of birth into hard cash. But the rewriting of history apparently doesn’t stop, and we are soon going to have another version and who can tell if Tipu will not revert to his villainous status?
In 2000, the attempted version of history was accompanied by additions to science syllabus of subjects like astrology, numerology and gemology.
A petition moved in the Supreme Court stalled this enhancement of our science education. One wonders whether we will have to wait as long as we have done for a verdict on what came first in Ayodhya, the temple or the mosque?
Meanwhile the “ocular distortion” (LK Advani’s words) has been removed and the nation presented with a fait accompli. It could very well be that a similar fait accompli in the form of new textbooks will now be staged while the Supreme Court’s great wisdom and collective intellect ponderously moves towards a verdict.
Whatever be the version of history that emerges, the new one or that of Romilla 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 Romilla Thapar. Of the twenty-four chapters twenty-one are about the people 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 forty percent of India’s population.
Little is told about regions like Orissa 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. The creation of separate states in these areas in the northeast and central India is recognition of this fact.
If Spear and Thapar are reticent about acknowledging the role of other regions in shaping modern India, AL Basham and SAA Rizvi 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 –1500AD 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 people 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 facts cannot be altered and much as the Sangh Parivar may like to do so, Babur cannot be wished away.
The Communists are past masters at airbrushing out people and rewriting history to suit each regime. Official photographs of the collective leadership immediately after the demise of Lenin, as Stalin kept consolidating his control, saw the progressive elimination of historical figures from history. No Trotsky, no Zinoviev, no Martov, no anybody who Stalin did away with. Similarly, in China, few would now hear about Lin-Piao who Mao had even anointed as his successor.
The written history of India is quite ethnocentric and focused mainly on Manu’s Aryavarta, which by the ancient lawgiver’s own description did not extend south of the Vindhya’s. Beyond the pale of Aryavarta was the land of the non-people and the legends of the Indo-Gangetic plains fully reflect these primitive attitudes.
Of course, times have changed and if the indigenous people of southern India are no longer described as beings further up the evolution chain than Indo-Aryan Homo Sapiens, as the Ramayana has shown them to be, it must be seen as a triumph of common sense.
Now is the time for the physicist Murli Manohar Joshi to conclude that if Rama is a fact and Ramayana history, then as paleontologists will let him know that anthropoids like Hanuman and Sugriva could have had no role in Rama’s evolution from a dispossessed prince to a great king.
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 Brauhi, a language still spoken by certain tribes in Baluchistan, 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?
This northern bias manifests itself in several ways, sometimes with great economic consequences.
The tourism industry in India is mostly about Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. True, the stupendous beauty of the Taj Mahal is a great magnet that draws tourists into India from all over the world. But the profligacies of the Mughals and the collaborationist kingdoms of Rajasthan cannot be India’s only attractions without the almost exclusive promotion of these by the government and the tourism trade.
So much so that the past that can still be seen in places of great historical importance like Badami, Vijayanagar, Belur and Halebid in Karnataka, Warangal in Andhra Pradesh and Kanchipuram, Madurai and Tanjore in Tamil Nadu do not have half decent facilities to encourage tourism.
Even Bijapur with its great Gol Gumbaz and gigantic mosque does not have a half decent hotel or any worthwhile facilities for tourists. If the battles of Panipat are important in the history of northern India, the battle of Talikota determined the final fate of the great Vijayanagar kingdom with the defeat of its powerful army by the forces of the Muslim confederacy. There is not even a marker at Talikota suggesting a battlefield consecrated with so much blood and so much valor.
The great Mughal army commanded by Raja Jaisingh was decisively defeated in a great naval battle on the vast Bramhaputra at Saraighat by the Asom forces of Lachit Barphukan. Let alone a marker at Saraighat, Lachit Barphukan does not even figure in our written history.
So, by all means, rewrite our history. That task is long overdue. But the question is whether we have an open mind to get it right and keep mumbo jumbo out of it?
But I doubt it. Even so it is likely that the rewritten Indian history will remain just what it is: the history of the vanquished.