The “conversation” on Indian history has once again failed to rise to the level of one by remaining within the usual terms of discord. One group calls itself secular and scientific and its opponents communal and driven by myths, while the other calls itself proudly Hindu and “Indian” and its opponents Marxist and pseudo-secular. It is, however, not a balanced contest. The imbalance has less to do with the politics of the moment and who’s in charge in New Delhi, and a lot more to do with issues of intellectual imbalance and imagination-stunting; simply put, we are able to detect, contest and ridicule the claims of one side for its sheer unprofessionalism, but we are oblivious, and perhaps even touchy, when it comes to some of the fairly ridiculous claims that exist on the “scholarly” side, our side, that is.
For one, we still seem to teach in our textbooks the idea that Hindus are foreign conquerors of India. Despite the serious criticism scholars have expressed about the “Aryan invasion” theory, even the same scholars sometimes go on as if the theory’s implications are true. Some go so far as to compare Vedic Hindus to the Nazis. I wonder why we have to find that any less ridiculous than the claims of less “distinguished” academics in India who say strange things about ancient Indian rishis inventing stem cell research and thought-powered planes, cars and the like. One, we dismiss outright as myth and right-wing national fantasy. The other, we not only fail to call out as old colonial-era racial nonsense, but actually go on to celebrate as cutting-edge work that is standing up bravely to saffron historians. We would do well to remember that nonsense we fail to call out as nonsense is perhaps far more harmful than the funny stuff that we can plainly see as such.
The truth is that we have not made the social investment needed to create a story about our past that is objective, professional and at the same time, meaningful to our living realities as Indians, Hindus and others. It is a strange thing that, for most people in India, it is not the stuff they memorise in history textbooks that is meaningful (and why would it be, when the books lack respect for not just what they call “myth” but objective reality too?) but the bits of sthala puranas, comic book panels, anecdotes, rumours and, of course, faith, that constitute history. If we are serious about the relevance of history to India today, then it behoves us to try and find a common ground between the desire that young Indians seem to feel for …continued »