The Hindutva view of history is both puzzling and refracted.
Riddled with contradictions and paradoxes, it is marked by an obsessive concern with its own peculiar sense of history which tries to reify the mythological. In this sense, it appears to borrow from Abrahamic religions, most of which are built around historical figures such as Jesus Christ and the Prophet Muhammad.
This attempt at reification seems to diminish our mythological figures.
Ram, for example, would only be the king of a small kingdom, no more than a footnote in history if he were a historical figure. However, he appropriates a much wider appeal as a cultural and mythological icon. From ‘ram ram’ being a popular form of greeting in North India to marayada purushottam ram being the epitome of duty and virtue, Ram has become a part of our cultural and social vocabulary.
Secondly, the Hindutva version of history is underpinned by the Hindu sense of time, which is both cyclical and sees each age as a degeneration from the previous one. The idea of the four yugas and the consequent emphasis on Kaliyuga is a case in point.
All that is glorious belongs to the ancient past, which is edified as the ‘golden age’. It is supposedly the age of great achievements in all spheres of life, be it the arts, culture or science. Therefore, the belief in pushpak vimans and plastic surgery in ancient India (il)logically follows from such a view of history and time.
Not only does the Hindutva view of history distort our sense of the past, it also robs us of a sense of the future, because the future is only meant to be imitative of the past. The past cannot be judged on its own terms as fantasies of the present are projected on to the past. The Hindutva version of history turns it into a realm of fantasy, blurring the lines between the historical and the mythological.
The archaeological facet, too, occupies a central place in the Hindutva sense of the historical.
This was quite evident during the Ramjanmabhoomi controversy, when the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and its allies cited archaeological evidence in court to support their claim of the existence of a temple where the Babri Mosque had stood.
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There can be nothing better than excavating the remains of a ‘glorious past’. No wonder then, the Harappan dancing girl is relabelled as Parvati and there is great enthusiasm for excavation projects at Hastinapur or for finding the Saraswati river.
For Hindutva, history remains key to its sense of identity.
That we were great in the past justifies our aspiration for greatness as a civilisation today. Its view of history is underpinned by this tautological world view. Hindutva turns history into a battlefield over which the war of culture and identity is fiercely fought.
While leftists and Marxists are accused of offering a sanitised version of the medieval past, hiding instances of conversion and temple desecration and destruction by Muslim kings, the propagators of Hindutva configure the ancient past in ideal terms, erasing all instances of caste discrimination and bigotry from its pages.
From changing history textbooks to declaring Maharana Pratap as ‘Great’, or vilifying Tipu Sultan, the Hindutva version of history seeks to offer the correct and the ‘right’ view of history, as it sees it.
It marshals history to proclaim the greatness of the Hindu civilisation/nation. It takes a different view of colonial rule, which is supposed to include the medieval period and 800 years of ‘Muslim rule’.
In the words of the prime minister himself, the nation had to suffer ‘1200 years of slavery’. These 1200 years of slavery are then seen as a blot on the Hindu civilisation/nation. The response is inevitably a naked form of revisionism, which seeks to reclaim, rename and appropriate all symbols of the medieval past.
Taj Mahal thus becomes ‘Tejo Mahalya’ a Shiva temple and Allahabad is renamed Prayagraj. The Hindutva view of invasion though is also complicated and selective. While Muslims and Mughals are labelled as ‘invaders’, it vehemently opposes the Aryan invasion theory, considering Aryans to be the original inhabitants of the land.
The insistence on the indigenous origin of Aryans allows the followers of Hindutva to claim that all present-day Hindus descended from Aryans and are, therefore, the rightful heirs to the land.
It has often been pointed out that the Hindutva view of history has much in common with colonial historiography subscribing to the communal periodisation of history, given by James Mill, who, as historian D.N. Jha says, “divided Indian history into Hindu, Muslim and British periods.”
Hindutva thus mobilises the past for identity-oriented ends.
While one can surely argue against the ills of using history to serve ideological ends, as is often the case with Marxist history writing, there can be nothing worse than identity-driven history writing, for it has scant regard for the rules of the discipline itself and no regard at all for the authenticity of historical facts.
Hindutva history is a classic case of dogma driven history, which tries to recast a complex and contested past into a rigid ideological mould.
It is guided by contemporary political agendas rather than a concern for understanding and explaining the past.
We must be aware of its design and expose its hypocrisies if we wish to engage with our past more critically.
Madhav Nayar is a Master’s student of Modern South Asian History at SOAS. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty