In a country like India where multiple identities have been coexisting together for centuries, religion, caste or communalism, are often the focal point of political debates, often resulting in large scale, unnecessary violence. Often on these occasions, historical characters arise from hitherto shunned away school textbooks to serve as perfect fodder for manipulation. The point remains that one may or may not have engaged in historical analysis, but that has hardly ever stopped them from making history a part of their personal sensitivities.
On Tuesday night, filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s sets for the upcoming film, ‘Padmavati’ was attacked and set on fire. The incident comes after an attack on the film’s sets in Jaigarh Fort under accusations of Bhansali’s film projects a dream sequence where Rani Padmavati is seen in an intimate moment with Allauddin Khilji. Despite Bhansali dismissing the allegations and historians pointing out to the fictional origins of Padmavati, the vandalism did not stop and his sets were attacked again last night.
The controversy over the historicity of Padmavati is hardly the first time when a character from the past was invoked to legitimise identities of the present. In a country where multicultural identities prevail, no historical character can ever be dated. Below is a list of five historical personalities who have been pulled up in the recent past, their historicity being the point of quarrel among different groups.
In May 2016 there was an uproar in Parliament over the description of the legendary Bhagat Singh as a ‘revolutionary terrorist’ in a book written by celebrated historian Bipin Chandra. The book that has been in circulation since 1988 and prescribed by universities was banned immediately and its distribution and sale stopped.
In response to the government’s allegations, however, several historians came out with statements referring to the historicity of the label ‘revolutionary terrorism’. The phrase was used in reference to those bravehearts who were willing to give up their lives fighting for their country. Consequently, Bipin Chandra had himself mentioned that the use of phrase is not made in a derogatory sense, but rather for the want of a better term.
The 18th century personality from South India has been under controversy for the past couple of years because of the Karnataka government’s decision to celebrate his birth anniversary. The decision taken by the Congress-led government was hugely criticised by Hindutva organisations and other communities like Mangalorean Christians and Kodavas of Kodagu.
The issue with Tipu Sultan is that of historical interpretation. While on one hand, the Karnataka government hailed the Mysore ruler for his resistance against the British and the contributions made by him to Karnataka society and culture, on the other hand there are allegations against Tipu for having gone about killing non-Muslims and carrying out forced conversions. The controversy surrounding Tipu’s personality led to large scale disturbances and vandalism on the streets of Karnataka.
While both ends of the debate surrounding Tipu is justified, what the entire controversy conveniently overlooked was the necessity of analysing historical personalities by locating them in time. Just like any other 18th century historical personality, Tipu was an ambitious monarch who wanted to expand his empire by hook or by crook.
The rather unpopular Mughal ruler has frequently come under attack for being a staunch Muslim whose religious zeal led to incur unjustified injuries on the non-Muslims under his reign. However, matters took a more serious turn when on August 2015 a BJP lawmaker, Mahesh Giri asked demanded from PM Modi to rename Aurangzeb road after former president Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam. ““Whenever we remember Aurangzeb, we think about cruelty and torture. We do not want to be reminded of that. A P J Abdul Kalam, on the other hand, is known for his love for the nation, his loyalty to the country, his generosity and kindness. We need to correct the mistakes made in our history,” wrote Giri.
While Giri was supported by a large faction of people who took to social media to remark upon the appropriateness of the decision, there were others who grieved the attempt made by the government to erase history. Expressing disappointment over the decision, the convenor of INTACH Delhi, AGK Menon said “the argument of modifying history by changing the name of a road is rather naïve. While governments, since they are an elected body, have every right to take decisions which include changing names of roads, they should have compelling reasons. You cannot change history or correct history.”
The popular 17th century Maratha ruler has come under controversy on several occasions. He was first upheld as a symbol of nationalist uprising by Bal Gangadhar Tilak in the late nineteenth century, he went on to be invoked on several occasions as a face of valiant Hinduism, as the voice of the non-Brahmin movement as an icon of modern Indian liberalism. Shivaji’s ability to incorporate so many different identities within him has on several occasions resulted in controversies.
Also Read: Another Shivaji Controversy
In August 2015, a public interest litigation was filed against the giving away of the Maharashtra Bhushan to Balasaheb Purandare who was known for his works on Shivaji. The Maratha Mahasangh objected to Purandare being a Brahmin and focusing on Shivaji’s devotion to Brahmins. As per the organisation, Shivaji was a Maratha and should have been hailed for that part of his identity.
On another occasion, there was an attack on the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute (Bori), Pune. The institute had helped the scholar James Laine in the writing of his book, Shivaji: Hindu king in Islamic India, in which he wrote controversial details on rumours surrounding Shivaji’s mother.
On one other instance the human rights activist Teesta Setalvad prepared a handbook for school teachers explaining how Brahmins had refused to coronate Shivaji because he was a Shudra. Soon after she came under huge attack by the local Shiv Sainiks who objected to Shivaji being referred to as a Shudra. In the battle of identities, it is the human aspect of Shivaji’s personality, located in the time in which he ruled that has been completely overlooked.