The past has repeatedly been used to legitimise — or damn — the present. India’s political landscape, battleground of contested ideologies, turned to history repeatedly in 2016 to draw legitimacy for the rhetoric of nationalism and to sometimes equate patriotism with Hindu assertion. In a year that saw several battles between the Left and the Right, history kept getting caught in the middle.
The Kohinoor diamond:
Whose gem is it?
In April, a sharp controversy broke out around the fabled diamond. It began with the Supreme Court asking the government for its views on the return of the 105-carat diamond from the UK — and Solicitor General Ranjit Kumar telling the court that the gem had been “gifted” to the East India Company by the rulers of Punjab, and thus could not be asked to be returned; “if we claim our treasures like Kohinoor from other countries, every other nation will start claiming their items from us.” But as a firestorm of protest broke out, the government said, the next day, that it would continue to “make all possible efforts to bring back the Kohinoor diamond in an amicable manner”.
While the Kohinoor is seen as part of India’s national heritage and pride, and despite the fact that it was found in the Golconda mines, it had also travelled across present-day Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan at various times — and each of these countries claims it as well.
Writer-historian William Dalrymple, in a book co-authored with journalist Anita Anand, concluded recently that the diamond was indeed taken by force. However, the book also makes the claim that according to historical documents, Maharaja Ranjit Singh had forced Shah Shuja of Afghanistan to hand over the diamond.
Bhagat Singh: Politics and history
There was uproar in Parliament after some MPs discovered that one of the finest textbooks on the history of the Indian National Movement, one that had been published in 1988 and prescribed by universities across the country for over 25 years, had used the expression “revolutionary terrorist” to describe the legendary Bhagat Singh. The main author of the book, the celebrated historian Bipan Chandra, had passed away in 2014. The government was exercised, and Delhi University stopped the sale and distribution of the book’s Hindi version.
However, complexities are inherent both in Indian history and in the ways in which terminology has been used in scholarship over the years. In the book, the word ‘terrorism’ is always used to describe the fearless revolutionaries who were ready to lay down their lives for the motherland, and not in the sense that it is often understood today. Also, Bipan Chandra himself clarified that “revolutionary terrorism” was “a term we use without any pejorative meaning and for want of a different term”.
B R Ambedkar: The Scramble for his legacy
2016 began with the suicide of Dalit PhD scholar Rohith Vermula in Hyderabad, and the following months saw a bitter political battle around the tragedy, including over the question of whether Vemula was a Dalit to begin with. At the same time, the BJP and the government, including the Prime Minister himself, made strenuous efforts to claim the legacy of Ambedkar.
The claims seemingly overlooked or ignored the obvious contradiction between the Hindu nationalism of the BJP and RSS, and Babasaheb’s unequivocal rejection of Hinduism and the caste system as well as his privileging of humanism over nationalism.
Tipu Sultan: A hero or a villain?
The conflict over the 18th century ruler of Mysore Tipu Sultan was carried over from 2015, and led to largescale disturbances around the decision of Karnataka’s Congress government to celebrate his birth anniversary. While the government underlined Tipu’s valiant resistance against the British and his contributions to the society and culture of Karnataka, Hindutva organisations and communities such as Mangalorean Christians and the Kodavas of Kodagu — who accuse Tipu of cruelty and forced conversions — saw in its decision a move to “appease” minorities.
The personality of Tipu has polarised popular and historical opinion over the years. While there is no denying his brilliant military achievements and success in building state institutions, the historical record also contains evidence to back the narrative of his being a bloodthirsty tyrant in Kodagu, Mangaluru and Malabar — a man who did go about killing and forcibly converting “infidels”.
As with most historical figures, Tipu’s actions must be seen in the context of his time. The correct assessment is probably that of the Australian historian Kate Brittlebank, one of the leading authorities on Tipu: that Tipu did not really discriminate against a community on the basis of faith, rather like any ambitious ruler of the 18th century, he was ruthless in claiming authority over neighbouring lands and getting rid of everyone that came in his way.