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Saturday, March 28, 2020

Speakeasy: History Rewrites Itself

If you want to arrive at an impossibly simplified account of Indianness, just hit rewind.

Written by Pratik Kanjilal | New Delhi | Published: May 25, 2014 12:56:25 am
Tilak (left); first page of Arctic Home in the Vedas (right) Tilak (left); first page of Arctic Home in the Vedas (right)

“History is more or less bunk,” Henry Ford famously told a Chicago Tribune reporter. “It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we made today.” Ninety-eight years later, this peculiarly American sentiment has resurfaced in India. The BJP has been propelled to power by an impatient Indian electorate which is tired of history and wants to live in the present.

But even before the new government was born, while television studios were whiling away the interregnum speculating about who would get to be which panjandrum in the cabinet, we English-educated pseudo-secularists raised on an unhealthy diet of Marxian histories were worrying that another attempt to rewrite the past was imminent. The fear is not altogether unfounded. Under the stewardship of Murli Manohar Joshi, who held the HRD portfolio in the last NDA government, editing history textbooks had suddenly become as mainstream as Test cricket. States where the BJP has run governments — and run them well in other respects — have also seen the phenomenon that Eric Hobsbawm called “the politico-ideological abuse of history”.

One wonders why they bother. It isn’t necessary to rewrite history to arrive at an impossibly simplified account of Indianness. You just have to hit the rewind button, and you will reach texts that no one reads these days but everyone has opinions about, like Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s The Arctic Home in the Vedas. It’s very easy to find — the Internet Archive has a four-colour edition published by Messrs Tilak Bros of Gaikwar Wada, Poona City, in the 1950s. Arctic Home was the work of an eternally curious scholar whose interests ranged from astronomy to scripture, who sought real-world moorings for a mythological reality. But with the benefit of hindsight, the book looks quite speculative, since remote antiquity in Asia was insufficiently explored in the late 19th century, when Tilak was writing.

Besides, Tilak was primarily an activist and newspaperman, who ran the Kesari and the Mahratta. His interest in myth, scripture and early history came second. But the work of contemporary professional historians was also limited by the data available at the time. Romesh Chunder Dutt was a star — barrister, fellow of Calcutta University, member of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, an economic historian who blamed British rule for the decline of manufacturing and contraction in wages which brought poverty to India. As far as I remember, he was the first to blame British commercial policies for a slew of famines, a phenomenon that has been studied politically and economically by generations of scholars since.

Dutt’s Ancient India – 2000 BC to 800 AD was published by Longman in London in 1904, a year after the first edition of Arctic Home appeared in Pune. The discovery of Mohenjo-daro and the seal dubbed Siva-Pasupati was still two decades away, and so there were no putative Dravidians to complicate the story of Aryavarta. The book begins with the Vedic Age, with a chapter titled “Hindu Settlements on the Indus”, and this does not mean Harappa. It sings of the victory of light over darkness, of Aryans over “dark-skinned aborigines”. After that, a section of Aryans apparently got disgusted about “animal sacrifices and the use of the fermented Soma wine”, struck their tents and led off their cattle to Iran to found the Avestic tradition.

A footnote clarifies that the common heritage of Indo-European culture is language, not blood, but otherwise, this account from 110 years ago has little in common with our present understanding of ancient India. Genetic profiling of the South Asian population denies the possibility of an “Aryan” influx or emigration. The distinction between Aryan and Dravidian is biologically insignificant, a fact that political parties founded on this faultline are trying to ignore. Soma is now identified with Ephedra, not alcohol. And the ancient settlements on the Indus were clearly not built by Arctic people, for the Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-daro looks like she flourished under a subtropical sun, not a midnight sun.

A quick rewind offers so many flavours of history, hot off the net, that there’s no need to roll your own. But then, though Narendra Modi did run his campaign from Varanasi, the navel of the Hindu universe, the BJP’s current priority is not history but economics. The electorate, the Prime Minister and the party agrees with Henry Ford: history is bunk. But you know what? Henry Ford is the only American named in Mein Kampf and Hitler told the US press that he had his life-size portrait in his study. Perhaps, the main function of history is not so much to remind as to surprise, even to irritate.

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