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The Falsification of History
Frontline, India's National Magazine published by The Hindu, Vol. 17, no. 06, 18-31 mar 2000
AFIB Editor's Introduction: As a contemporary political reality neofascism is hardly confined to Europe and North America. On the Indian subcontinent, far-right communalist movements allied with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the secretive Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) have launched a sustained campaign to "cleanse" Indian society of dissident cultural and intellectual workers perceived as hostile to the project of transforming India into an ultra-nationalist Hindu state. On the level of cultural warfare the ideological parallels between BJP-RSS "purification" campaigns to similar crusades in the West, most notably those launched by the North American Christian Right to portray the United States as a fundamentalist "Christian Republic", are striking. In both cases far-right movements characterized by markedly clericalist and ultra-nationalist rhetoric, seek to achieve (or consolidate) state power in order to advance a regressive political-cultural vision whose signposts are "order", "family" and the ubiquitous "free market." But the role of historical falsification, under the guise of upholding the alleged "eternal verities" of religion serve very secular gods indeed: chief among them the universal god of greed and exploitation: Capital.
The latest ICHR-sponsored assault on academic freedom is just one of several official actions under BJP rule in the realm of education and research that are aimed to disseminate the Hindutva version of history.
AEVEN Saket Ram, the Hindutva protagonist of the 'Hey! Ram', who builds a dangerously sympathetic case for Mahatma Gandhi's assassin through the greater part of the much-publicised film, is shaken by anger and revulsion when Nathuram Godse, a Hindu fascist, shoots the peace-loving and trusting mass leader at point blank range. However, for the Publications Division that functions under the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, one of the most dastardly assassinations of our times could have been carried out by anybody. Or nobody. Why else would a compact disk (CD-ROM) on the life of Mahatma Gandhi produced in 1999 by a private software company for the Publications Division choose not to mention the name, and the philosophy which inspired, Gandhi's assassin? (The CD-ROM was reviewed in Frontline, February 18, 2000). Who killed Mahatma Gandhi? The answer, quite simply, does not qualify as history.
Both in its Introduction, which is a multimedia run-through of the life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, and in a section called Landmark Events, a sound-and-image treat which offers the user 40 landmark events of Gandhi's life to browse through, the CD-ROM's narrative offers the information that Gandhi was assassinated on January 30, 1948. It then proceeds to discuss the reactions to his death with images of his funeral. There is no naming Godse; there is not even an allusion to the political forces of the Hindu Right that were arraigned against Gandhi or why they opposed him.
There could be two reasons for this glaring omission. The first is that commercial logic prompted the creators of the CD-ROM to keep on the right ideological side of the sponsors of the project; the second is that the Ministry itself planned the project choosing to delete this uncomfortable piece of history. After all, Gandhi was murdered for his unshakable faith in the secular and pluralist basis of the Indian nation. His assassin Nathuram Godse was a Hindutva fundamentalist and a one-time member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (as his only living brother Gopal Godse has proudly testified to several times in the recent and not-so-recent past). The political and ideological forebears of the Bharatiya Janata Party, in power today at the Centre, killed Gandhi. It is therefore logical to assume that the absence of an important piece of historical information in the CD-ROM could hardly have been oversight.
The whitewash job on Gandhi performed by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting is of a piece with a string of actions taken by the Union Ministry of Human Resource Development in the direction of officialising history. In their justification of the official withdrawal of two manuscripts of the "Towards Freedom" project of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), BJP spokespersons have repeatedly alleged in the media and in Parliament that Gandhi has been given a raw deal in the manuscripts, that a great Indian has been relegated to the footnotes of history by 'leftist' historians. Their own version just cleanses him away. It is significant that the CD-ROM, at Rs. 2,500, is affordable only to schools, libraries and institutions - which are now the targets of Hindutva organisations and governments for the dissemination of their version of Indian history.
History, history teaching and historical research have together become an arena where a political battle for a nation's identity and future is being waged. In this battle zone, two historical traditions face each other. On the one side is a historical tradition - by far the more influential and robust - of critical, rational historical enquiry that draws upon an expanding base of historical evidence, which affirms the composite nature of India's culture and heritage, and which is itself a product of the diverse nationalist streams within the freedom movement. On the other side is a historical tradition exemplified by the Hindutva view of history (after Partition its Muslim counterpart found a 'national' homeland in Pakistan). In this perspective, religious communities are distinct political entities, even nations. That India's heritage is Hindu is the premise, and in its effort to 'prove' this thesis and deny the plurality of India's past, it resorts to every subterfuge - falsification of history, doctoring of historical data, and now, the suppression of historical research through official channels. Thus must today's Hindutva-ite see the remains of a temple in every mosque, historicise myth in various ways including underwater explorations in quest of a supposed Golden Age of Hinduism, stop publications that would reveal uncomfortable truths of the past, terrorise "enemies" for the alleged historical wrongdoings of their forebears, seek changes in democratic instruments such as the Indian Constitution, itself the product of the nation's diversity and multi-facetedness which Hindutva seeks to deny and suppress, and so on.
This process became ever more purposeful and directed once the BJP-led coalition came to power. The takeover of the ICHR is a case in point. It is clear from the growing evidence that is now in the public realm, including what Frontline has published, that the demand to recall the manuscripts of K.N. Panikkar and Sumit Sarkar was made by B.R. Grover, Chairman of the ICHR, as early as August 1998 in the first Council meeting after the reconstitution of the ICHR with historians sympathetic to the BJP. We know now that following the reconstitution, pressures were almost immediately applied on the then Chairman of the ICHR, S. Settar, to give in on two issues. These were the recall of the manuscripts (which neither Grover nor any of his group had read), and the withdrawal of the annual ICHR grant to the Indian History Congress (IHC), an organisation which meets annually and which has an impressive record of scholarship in its over seven decades of existence. The antipathy of Grover and his fellow historians in the Hindutva camp to the IHC stems from its fiercely independent stand on issues of historical and political importance (including a spirited opposition to the use and abuse of history by the Sangh Parivar), and its promotion of rational and scientific academic research.
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