Abuse of History: Left and Right

Written by  //  August 18, 2010  //  Philosophy, Religion, Culture  //  3 Comments

For those who are reasonably well acquainted with political debates in India, it must be familiar knowledge that one of the major accusations leveled against the previous NDA government by the UPA was that the former had tried to paint (and partially succeeded in painting) India’s history with liberal strokes of very strongly colored saffron paint. This corrupting saffron strain was found in various spheres of cultural life – history textbooks, the disproportionate importance given to Sanskrit in allocating research funds (and by a dangerous corollary, the relegation of Urdu to a secondary status), the selection and appointment of right-wing inclined experts on major government bodies, trying to make dubious divisive historical figures respectable by hanging their oil canvases striking chivalrous poses in Parliament (Veer Savarkar), the list goes on. In response to these various acts of the NDA government, the ‘detoxification’ campaign of the UPA I government was initiated. The aim and purpose of this campaign, the name of which evokes images of oily massages in Kerala, was supposedly to set things right by ridding the right slant of the previous regime and to render history teaching and scholarship untainted by the influences of politics. As objectives go, this seemed to be uncontroversial.

I will not in this piece be concerned with the individual allegations of saffronisation and whether they were justified. I will also not be dealing with whether the detoxification campaign has actually resulted in tilting the balance way too much to the left. You will find that there are quite rabid views held either way and as is increasingly the case these days the case with rabid views, you will find the internet is practically full of them.

Instead, I will be exploring the basis for the detoxification programme, trying to understand why such a programme is required. Further I will illustrate one particular instance where the actions of the present government have gone against this very basis, albeit not in the context of Hindu-Muslim politics, but in an entirely different context. It is my argument that regardless of political context or convenience, the principles underlying the detoxification programme need to be applied impartially and consistently. If not so applied, you open yourself up to the very justifiable criticism that your concern is not with detoxification as a dispassionate ideal, rather, your aim is to favor one version of history over another to suit your political requirements in the present.

There are essentially two reasons that suggest themselves to any person of common sense as to why such a policy of detoxification is required. I shall, rather grandiosely call them:

a. The Non-Consequentialist Reason This reason goes to the fact that most of insertions inspired by the saffronisation programme were not correct. Truth as a value is of utmost importance in history, without which one loses all sense of objectivity. For instance, it was simply not true that India’s history comprised of three distinct ages being the golden Hindu Age, the miserable suffering dark ages of Islamic conquest and the British Colonial Age as was sought to be portrayed (or alleged to have been portrayed) by the saffornists. That this was not true was the opinion of nearly all respected sane historians.

b. The Consequentialist Reason The consequentialist reason, which for our purposes is more important, relates to the impact such a programme of tinkering with history has on the present – the ideological use to which the history is being put. It did not require divine inspiration to guess the motives behind the saffronisation programme. By painting Indian history as a long story of desecrated Hindu temples and raped Hindu women by marauding Islamic outsiders, they were trying to convey the message that a certain community in India had primacy over others. This has a very visibly dangerous and toxic effect on society.

So there are your two reasons – one, that it is not true and two, that it is dangerous. A recent event has thrown light on the face that this sort of misuse of history is not the sole prerogative of the NDA government and that the UPA encourages, indulges or suffers it quietly if its political interests are served.

The issue in question is the World Tamil Classical Conference that was concluded recently at great expense and pomp in Coimbatore. More specifically, the recipient of the (rather unfortunately named) Kalaignar M Karunanidhi Classical Tamil Award. This award was presented to a Swedish scholar named Asko Parpola whose primary contribution to the Tamil language is that he has spent a lot of time and effort trying to prove that Tamil and the Indus Valley language are related. Not many people, apart from the scholar himself, the Tamil Nadu government and the Hindu newspaper seem to be convinced that he has actually succeeded in this endeavor. And even amongst those who are convinced, it seems to the impartial observer, that they are fervently hoping that they are convinced rather than actually being convinced. I don’t want to bore the readers with an elaboration of his assertions, but I think it is safe to say that according the present state of the scholarship, this award is something similar to giving the Nobel prize in Medicine to someone who has spent a lot of time in trying to find a cheap cure for cancer but has not conclusively demonstrated his cure works. It may true that Tamil and the Indus language are related. You cannot definitely say it is not true. But then again, you cannot definitely say it is true. The only reason you have given him the award is because you want it to be true.

I can think of only one factor behind awarding what is supposed to a prestigious award to what is, given the present stage of scholarship, at best, a plausible conjecture – politics. Let my readers not assume that I am taking a stance on the actual issue. I don’t claim to know that Tamil and the Indus Valley Language are not related. Indeed, I find the discussions on the topic irredeemably boring. My concern here is to explore the underlying political reasons and implications of the choice. What could be the political motivations in being so eager to declare that Tamil and the Indus Valley Language are related?

 I can think of a few, I will leave it to my readers to make up the rest. For one, it goes to the old assertion that the inhabitants of the south, the Dravidians are the original inhabitants of the subcontinent. The people of the North or the Aryans invaded immigrated into India and hence have their homeland elsewhere. Another, it goes to show that Tamil is at lest as old as, if not actually older than Sanskrit. More importantly it is entirely distinct from Sanskrit and any influence of Sanskrit on Tamil is a later influence which is a result of political domination. This is a matter of grave pride for a lot of people in the DMK. The more disturbing implication is that it can and will be used to divide people. By portraying Tamil’s history as a binary between a golden age where Sangam Poetry flourished along the banks of the Indus (all along it used to be banks of the Vaigai or the Kaveri) and subsequent centuries of suppression by the Sanskrit speaking Brahmins, there is a very dangerous implication for present day politics in Tamil Nadu. Any form of a binary that has little historical basis and is used to peddle ideologies in the present are suspect, regardless of whether they originate on the left or the right. This particular binary has been used with great effect by the Dravidian parties over the past fifty years, to claim power on the basis that they are the voice of the natives, the original inhabitants of the sub continent. But that is just not true. Nobody is an original inhabitant of any place in any real sense. If the UPA is supposedly disturbed by a theory that suggests that Muslims are outsiders, it ought to be equally concerned by a theory that suggests that vast sections of the Indian population are outsiders.

Again, history may prove me wrong and in ten years it might be standard scholarship that the Indus Valley people used to break out in ornate Tamil poetry at every given opportunity, but my point is limited. It is just that, given the present state of the scholarship, what is merely the wishful thinking of certain politicians is being passed off as history for evidently political purposes and that is wrong. This mistake has both the hallmarks associated with saffornisation programme – it is poor history and has possibly dangerous consequences.

3 Comments on "Abuse of History: Left and Right"

  1. Ruchira August 18, 2010 at 10:19 am ·

    Wrong or right, Foucault would have seen this as an interesting play of ‘truth’ and power and how power can be used to insiduously ‘produce truth’ through ‘a regime of truth’ i.e. History. The solution is to create ban alternate truth.

  2. Vipul August 18, 2010 at 9:59 pm ·

    Somewhat tangential to your post: What amuses me about all the politicking around the education curriculum is that the same story is repeated in all parts of the world where there is a single central body that decides a curriculum for large numbers of people. Just as politicians wrestle with each other to grab a larger share of taxpayers’ money for themselves and their well wishers, ideologues of all stripes wrestle with each other to grab a larger share of what they perceive to be innocent and malleable young minds. Fortunately or unfortunately, most students forget most of what they learned in school anyway if they ever learned it at all (who cares who invaded what when?) so the attempts at indoctrination don’t work out as well as their proponents may have hoped.

    More related to your post: I do share your epistemological concern for the truth, but most people don’t care about the truth. I’d put it even more strongly: people generally don’t draw a sharp distinction between what’s true and what they would like to believe. People are inherently irrational. When it comes to day to day activities, people exercise more rationality — because they suffer the consequences of acting without the discipline of rationality. When it comes to issues of religion and ethnic history, though, it is easier to just relax and do the natural thing by conflating what’s true and what you’d like to believe. After all, if you’re wrong in your proud belief that an Indian scientist had discovered the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics but died in an accident before he could tell anybody else, how would you ever suffer for being wrong?

    I don’t think either political activity or educational curricula create this tendency, though they may well reflect and exploit such tendencies. It is possible that educational curricula could be designed to help humans overcome their irrationality. But I don’t see any obvious way of doing it — and I don’t see any incentive for anybody to figure it out.

  3. aandthirtyeights August 26, 2010 at 11:48 am ·

    I think the Classical Tamil award must be called the Thiruvalluvar Semmozhiyaana Tamizhmozhi Birudu. I mean, how can they call it “classical” “tamil” or “award”? And then give it Kalaignar’s name – who isn’t classical in the least.

Comments are now closed for this article.