History can unfortunately be a slave for certain political forces while acting as a beacon of light for others. It can be used to ensure that mistakes of the past are not repeated and positives of bygone years are refashioned to further benefit and empower people. But enslaving history is important for those who use victimhood as an important element in their political stratagem. It is imperative for such political forces to accuse adversaries of 'distorting' history, while chasing a phantasmagorical utopian past.
Union Minister Amit Shah's recent assertion at a conference organised in Varanasi – to elevate another historical figure, Emperor Skandgupta of the Gupta Empire, as 'veer' or brave – that there is a need to “rewrite history” from an “Indian point of view” requires evaluation from this perspective.
The advantages of “rewriting history”
History is of great import for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the phalanx of organisations steeped in the idea of Hindu nationalism. The reading of history occupies prominent space in the consciousness of the Hindutva contingent's leadership and cadre because much of their contemporary politics is justified by stating that it is imperative to undo 'indignities' and 'wrong' interpretations and emphases of the past.
Among several contentions, Shah argued that existing historiography, "particularly by British and Mughal-era historians and Leftists" (the last category certainly cannot remain unnamed) had not put adequate emphasis on Indian (read Bharatiya) heroes who unified the country from the Gangetic plain to terrains reaching Afghanistan and fought back invaders.
In his list, Shah included the Maratha warrior king, Shivaji, the Rajput ruler, Rana Pratap and Sikh gurus. These historical figures are high in the list of greats because they are depicted as having stood up against the Mughals, an interpretation which is vital to buttress the Sangh Parivar's claim that it is engaged in the civilisation 'project', which goes beyond individual development, of ending 1,200 years of slavery.
The Hindu nationalist offensive for the 'correct' depiction of the past is continuous or unceasing. Because everything before 2014 is part of this past, although grudgingly the years between 1998-2004 are excluded, each action of the BJP government is presented as part of this history 'mission'. If the decision to de-operationalise Article 370 was taken with the objective of correcting 'mistakes' of Jawaharlal Nehru (primarily) and not rectified by subsequent governments, the decision to promise Bharat Ratna for Vinayak Damodar Savarkar has been made to ensure that 'true' patriots are honoured and elevated to their 'rightful' place in history.
The advantage of 'rewriting' history from the 'Bharatiya perspective' although being a ceaseless commitment, is given a new thrust periodically to coincide with immediate political necessities – like the intention to honour Savarkar was announced with an eye on the Assembly elections in Maharashtra.
This often erases among a majority of the people any memory of past initiatives or announcements in this regard. For instance, in mid-2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi quietly appointed a committee of scholars owing allegiance to the regime to rewrite Indian history. Shah's assertions both justify such an exercise and build on its deliberations thus far.
The objective of the committee was two-fold: First, to establish by using archaeological and DNA evidence that today's Hindus are descendants of the first inhabitants of this land. Second, to prove that Hindu scriptures are grounded in history and are not mythical tales.
The entire effort, still ongoing, is motivated by the Parivar's belief that national identity must be in sync with cultural (read religious) identity and that even people of different faiths were essentially Hindus. But if they chose to repose faith in Holy Lands outside national territory, they could not be entitled to sharing the national identity.
The claim that Hindus have the first right in this nation because theirs is the foundational religion of the land has been espoused for more than a century but the idea was first politically articulated and codified by Savarkar. The necessity to elevate him among national 'greats' follows from this irrespective of the needle of suspicion over involvement or knowledge of the conspiracy to assassinate Mahatma Gandhi remaining pointed in Savarkar's direction.
In another of his vocalisations in recent days, Shah spelt out why Savarkar was among the worthiest in the country: No one else suffered such brutalities in jail and was meted out similar hardship by the colonial regime. Additionally, Shah said Savarkar deserved a spot in the national pantheon of greats because he described the events in 1857 as India's ‘first war of Independence’ when most still called it a mere ‘mutiny’.
This is certainly a contentious assertion. Even otherwise, the lacunae in Shah's Savarkar-narratives are his choice of facts which are unambiguously selective: Karl Marx had years prior to the Hindutva pundit termed the uprising as a war for Independence. Furthermore, for all the hardship imposed on Savarkar by the British, the government provided him with a monthly allowance of Rs 60, no mean an amount in those times, from 1929 onward.
Even Lal Bahadur Shastri as prime minister decided to provide financial aid to him despite the institution of the Jivan Lal Kapur Commission to investigate the conspiracy into Gandhi's assassination.
Of the three phases of Savarkar's life, the least consequential was the almost three-decades-long period beginning 1937, when restraints on his movement and socio-political engagements were lifted. This period continued till his death in 1966. In this period, he unsuccessfully attempted to make Hindu Mahasabha one of the principal political parties of India and severely disagreed with the working and the style of RSS. For instance, right after he was released, he rubbished the RSS obsession with character-building and organising Hindus and declared: "The epitaph for the RSS volunteer will be that he was born, he joined the RSS and died without accomplishing anything."
Despite the two working at cross purposes, the BJP and other organisations in its fraternity are united in their efforts to put Savarkar on a pedestal because it suits their current project of civilisational rejuvenation. In the absence of a 'home bred' nationalist who played a prominent role in the freedom movement within Sangh Parivar ranks, Savarkar is the only potential 'our own' who can be projected as a national icon.
The emphasis on Savarkar's 'veerta' or bravery, a phase which ended in 1911 after the beginning of his prison term in Cellular Jail, Andaman Islands, is a pointer to this compulsion. In this period, Savarkar not just participated in revolutionary nationalist activities, but also acknowledged the nation's cultural and religious diversity. However, while Shah referred to Savarkar's book on 1857, he ignored that the latter also listed unity among Hindus and Muslims as an important reason for challenging British might.
The truth is that the BJP or its affiliates cannot declare that Savarkar must be honoured for being the person to codify Hindutva because this would alarm several sections within India and outside. In the second phase of his life when he wrote most of his texts, (most significantly Hindutva – Who is a Hindu?) Savarkar essayed some of his most divisive ideas, often using fiction as form to camouflage his real intention.
The BJP wishes the Bharat Ratna to be bestowed on him for this effort but cannot state this publicly. This leaves party leaders with little option but to reiterate his revolutionary past from which he deviated in his youth.
Just as the way the BJP is shepherding others towards a particular way of selectively perceiving Savarkar and leaving out contentious bits, Shah's call for "rewriting history", besides other prior assertions and actions in that direction, mitigates serious historical scholarship since the thesis or what has to be established has already been laid out by the Union home minister.
It is up to historians patronised by the regime to fill up the blanks and construct a public narrative however anti-historical it may be in reality.
(Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based journalist and author. His latest book is RSS: Icons Of The Indian Right. He has also written Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times (2013))
The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.