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The problem with cherry-picking facts from history

Narayani Gupta writes: Selective reading of historical events produces half-truths, tailored narratives

Written by Narayani Gupta |
Updated: April 26, 2022 6:32:21 pm
Anti-encroachment drive at the site of stone-pelting where clashes erupted between two communities, at Jahangirpuri in New Delhi. (Express photo by Praveen Khanna)

In my younger days, if we wanted to comment on any article in a newspaper, we rattled off a short letter to the editor on our typewriter. Now there are journalists whose comments are in the form of an article as long as the one under discussion. Many of them can only be described as clones of Humpty Dumpty, confident that “When I use a word, it means exactly what I want it to mean, no more, no less”.

A recent example is that of an article by S Y Quraishi (‘Calling out hate’, April 15) and the comment that followed. Noting the alarming reports of hate speeches in the social media, Quraishi wrote, “It is at the root of many forms of violence that are being perpetrated and has become one of the biggest challenges to the rule of law and to our democratic conscience.” He lists those who can act firmly and swiftly — during elections it is the Election Commission that must act, and in the “non-election” months the state has the power to act by using provisions of the Indian Penal Code, and the Representation of the People Act. The sense of urgency in his article was palpable.

There was a rejoinder to Quraishi in The Indian Express (‘Ignorance isn’t bliss’, April 21). Balbir Punj, the writer, says in the second paragraph that Quraishi’s “arguments are drearily familiar, facts dodgy, and conclusions delusional”. Punj adds: “Quraishi’s article has little to do with the anatomy of hate or its ongoing malignancy”. Quraishi was not dissecting the emotion of hate, he was criticising the inaction of the Election Commission and the courts, in the context of hate-speeches made by individuals over the last year.

Punj begins his piece on a breathless note: “Hate and bigotry feed on each other. They germinate and flourish on a toxic diet of divisive and schismatic ideologies and polarising creeds that discriminate against human beings on the basis of colour, region, gender, faith — and divide them between believers and non-believers — ranging the chosen ones against the idolatrous”. The strapline was “Understanding trail of hate in India requires honest examination of its origins”. Eleven of the 15 paragraphs in the essay deal with this trail.

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History as a discipline is about time, place and people. Teachers of history compartmentalise themselves into sections of time and of place/region. Not so the non-historian. Punj writes, “For aeons, India has had syncretic traditions, inspired by the Vedic aphorism “ekam sad [sic] vipra bahudha vadanti” (there is only one truth and learned persons call it by many names). In September 2020, a 16-member committee was set up by the Ministry of Culture to study the origin and evolution of Indian culture, “dating back to around 12,000 years ago”. It held two meetings and vanished from the scene. That’s a cautionary tale.

Bhakti and Sufi cults have been for long described as “syncretic”. Punj does not associate Sindh with its great Sufi tradition, but with bin Qasim’s conquest in 712 CE and the coming of Islam — “…as Chach Nama, a contemporary Arab chronicle states, [he] introduced the practice of treating local Hindus as zimmis, forcing them to pay jizya… ‘Hate’ and ‘bigotry’ thus made their debut in India, which was hitherto free from this virus”.

It is worth locating and browsing through translations of the Chach Nama, for its accounts of the attitude of the Arab rulers of Sindh towards the Hindu population and their places of worship. A natural outcome of this beginning was the enduring presence of Sufi orders in Sindh.

The simplest — but not wholly ethical — way to substantiate an argument is by cherry-picking. From 8th-century Sindh the author moves to 11th-century north India. He writes of Mahmud of Ghazni who “took a vow to wage jihad every year against Indian idolators”. (I tried to locate a source for this, and came up only with one — an earlier article by Punj, on July 12, 2019). Ghaznavi’s exact contemporary, Rajendra Chola, was in the same period raiding Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. In Indian school textbooks Ghaznavi has always been an “invader”, the Cholas were “conquerors”.

The next eight centuries are omitted, and the trail moves down to Malabar (the Moplah Rebellion of 1921), then north and east India (the Partition tragedies of 1946-8), the “decimation” of Hindus in neighbouring countries (no dates) and people in Spain and Sweden.

He proceeds to ask a rhetorical question “Can laws or police fight hate?”

And this article was published a day after the BJP-run civic body let the bulldozers raze homes in Jahangirpuri “in the face of the Supreme Court order” as the Indian Express headline stated on the same day as Punj’s article!

Punj’s narrative could be described in his own words — “charged reactions, punctuated with half-truths, deliberate omissions and tailored narratives, offer no real solution” [to what?]. This is followed by a line which I find extremely difficult to decipher — “pusillanimity to face facts will only exacerbate the situation and give egregious results.”

This column first appeared in the print edition on April 25, 2022 under the title ‘History as mischief’. The writer is a Delhi-based historian

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