Sharp resistance to Hindu majoritarian rule by India’s democratic forces has evinced a clever counter-response from scholars who support the current dispensation. Historians such as Vikram Sampath have resorted to using the politically acceptable rhetoric of democracy and decolonisation to make Hindu domination sound reasonable.

Sampath, the author of a two-volume biography of VD Savarkar, last month wrote a passionate essayurging academic historians to rescue the glories of ancient India from years of “leftist” denigration and to democratise and decolonise academic and school histories. It is an erroneous and deceptive appeal.

Democratically minded historians have already pointed out that Sampath curiously ignores the diverse, inclusive and secular content of the current history textbooks and overlooks the gradual process of democratisation that academic history has undergone since the 1970s.

It it worth examining Sampath’s analytical framework and the manner in which he deploys four key concepts to legitimise his appeal: historical wounds, democracy, decolonisation and nationalism.

Hindu-Muslim binary

Sampath’s arguments are animated by perspectives that have been regularly utilised by the proponents of Hindu majoritarian rule in India in order to give their claims a historical basis. These perspectives understand Indian history through the lens of a sharp Hindu-Muslim binary. On the one hand, they emphasise Hinduism’s internal unity and indigeneity and celebrate its supposed ability to integrate faiths that grew out of opposition to the Brahmanical religion.

Sampath uses the word “Indic” instead of “Hindu” in order to indicate this purported inclusiveness. On the other hand, Hindu majoritarian perspectives emphasise on Islam’s “outsider” status, and its alleged efforts to destroy Hinduism through ruthless conquests and large-scale conversions. Two broadly defined religious communities with myriad internal differences and tensions are thus homogenised to give them the appearance of unified political communities – which they are not.

Christophe Jaffrelot, Chetan Bhatt and other scholars of Hindu nationalism rightly suggest that most of its historical perspectives stem from a sense of faith. Not only is their historical veracity suspect, but also these ideas have sinister implications for the present.

Sampath draws upon them to suggest that decolonising Indian academic history should entail recovering Hinduism’s ancient glory as well as confronting the so-called trauma of “Islamic conquests”. This confrontation is not against Muslims per se, Sampath suggests, but against the violence inflicted upon India by brutal foreign invaders professing Islam: a necessary step towards the final acceptance of Muslims as an integral part of Indian society.

False healing touch

Notwithstanding the earnestness of his tone, Sampath’s confront-to-heal approach towards decolonisation and national integration seems rather insincere. He has declared that inter-religious amity must be the goal of this confrontation with the alleged Hindu trauma. The fact remains however that from the Somnath temple restoration to the Babri mosque demolition, these stories of trauma have been used for precisely the opposite purpose: to emphasise on the foreignness of Islam, to demonise Indian Muslims as the descendants of brutal invaders and to issue calls for genocide. Sampath does not spend a single word criticising this pattern.

Sampath’s portrayal of the place of Muslims in Indian history, especially his simplistic equation of Islam’s presence in India with the supposed Hindu trauma, is prejudiced and incorrect. As the work of South Indian scholars such as MGS Narayanan shows, people professing the Islamic faith lived in South India prior to the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate. No doubt the Afghan, Turkish and Mughal invasions were brutal. But so were those of the Sakas, the Kushanas, the Indo-Greeks and others. Their contribution to ancient India is seldom disregarded solely because they invaded the subcontinent.

The medieval period of Indian history was marked by great syncretic social and cultural achievements. The mosques, dargahs, Sufi shrines, Islamic literature and architecture are not foreign implants of inhuman invaders. Our subcontinental culture is a product of waves of migrations and assimilation – not necessarily under a Hindu umbrella – from the Aryans to the Muslims. Who knows what new patterns of migration may emerge in future, due to the impending climate crisis, or other factors and reshape the idea of India?

It is also worth asking why “Muslim invaders” – if I were to use Sampath’s phrase – should be singled out for their brutality. Rulers born within the subcontinent could be ruthless too. Ashoka’s pacifism was in part a shrewd political attempt to unite a warring society left scarred by his own merciless conquests.

There is adequate research that demonstrates how British colonial historians exaggerated the violence inflicted by “Muslim invaders”, as part of their divide and rule policy. Their highly prejudiced narratives, unfortunately, made their way into the work of Indian researchers and are often used uncritically by scholars to present a historical case for building a Hindu India instead of a diverse and secular India.

Democracy and decolonisation

The historiography that Sampath calls “leftist”, and the historians he accuses of whitewashing “Islamic conquests”, belong to a post-colonial scholarly tradition that called out both colonial and Hindu majoritarian history-writing.

They challenged the essential historical claims that are used to justify Hindu domination. They showed that the Aryans were migrants from Central Asia and not indigenous to the subcontinent, that ancient Hinduism was hardly free of caste/gender discriminations, that Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism should be respected as distinct faiths rather than variations of Hinduism, that Afghan, Turkish and Mughal conquerors never really looked to obliterate Hinduism and that the medieval period was hardly a dark age.

Over time, the horizons of this body of research have widened as new generations of Marxist, Dalit Bahujan, feminist and Adivasi scholars have added to it. These scholars have often found themselves at odds with each other over ideological, methodological and institutional questions. At the same time, they have been united in their commitment towards the democratisation of Indian society, academia and school curricula. Most of them are not “leftist”, even in a broad sense, but they are definitely opposed to Hindu nationalism.

In the hands of these scholars, from the 1970s onwards, history-writing has steadily gone beyond Delhi and its dynasties. In 2005, many of them joined hands, despite mutual misgivings, to produce a broad-based constitutional democratic National Curriculum Framework. The current government is keen to set aside the framework and reframe the school curriculum according to its own ideology. Is that the reason why Sampath oddly refuses to recognise the National Curriculum Framework’s achievements towards democratising school education?

The post-2005 school history curriculum has emphasised on regional histories and reckoned with histories of caste and gender oppression with a view to overcoming them. Photo credit: Prakash Singh/AFP

Inconvenient truth

The post-2005 school history curriculum emphasised on regional histories, reckoned with histories of caste and gender oppression with a view to overcoming them, and sought to teach children to think historically instead of overloading them with information about the past. This curricular framework was produced during the Congress-led government, but the history textbooks went beyond Congress-oriented narratives of the freedom struggle.

This is an inconvenient truth for the current ruling dispensation and its apologists, who are keen to whitewash the negative role of its own progenitors in the freedom struggle in the name of telling the latter’s true history.

The democratising thrust of academic history and school curriculum has included a significant decolonial component. In accordance with the legacies of anti-colonial movements in the subcontinent and beyond, decolonisation has certainly come to mean a lot more than the mere attainment of political freedom. It entails the undoing of historically oppressive structures of caste, class, gender and race.

In the field of academic research and curriculum design, this has implied a critical appreciation of the past, for the past is both a useful resource for building egalitarian futures and a source of valuable lessons. Recovery of a glorious past – that too an exclusively “Hindu” or “Indic” past – that downplays its own internal tensions and in turn homogenises and externalises other Indian communities, runs counter to the needs of both democracy and decolonisation.

Our nation

Democratic history-writing necessitates that we treat the nation form as historically specific and develop a critical outlook towards it even as we inhabit it. Sampath distinguishes between the nation and the state, to suggest that while the Indian nation-state may be recent, the nation itself is ancient. The argument appears convincing, but how accurate is it? Nations are indeed distinct from states, but nationalism and modern states arose side by side during the 18th and 19th centuries and supplemented each other.

Territorial states were crucial in giving a concrete shape to national imaginations. This became a pattern in the making of nations in the ensuing centuries. The work of Benedict Anderson famously showed how nations and states are deeply entangled with each other, and why they are not easily separable.

The works of Partha Chatterjee, MSS Pandian and other Indian historians reveal how Anderson’s observations hold true for India.

No nation is ancient as such – they are all quite modern. However, all nations claim to be ancient and timeless in order to give themselves legitimacy. In the process, they tend to subsume other forms of belonging of its people.

This too is a pattern in the history of nationalism. It indicates the centralising and homogenising thrusts that nations tend to possess. Far from facilitating national integration, these thrusts can easily harm the interests of the people who constitute the nation. To use a contemporary example from India, the suppression of a range of dissenting views using the “anti-national” tag shows how a narrowly defined nationalism can turn on its own people.

‘Anti-national’ tag

If historians are critical of the nation, it is not due to a lack of patriotism. On the contrary, it is based on the fact that nations often do not treat all their inhabitants equally. It is also based on the understanding that a critical outlook towards nationalism aids the fight for equality within nations. To take another contemporary example, India has witnessed a slew of arrests of anti-caste activists at a time when caste atrocities are on the rise and when key achievements of anti-caste movements are being undone.

The “anti-national” tag has been widely used to delegitimise these activists. BR Ambedkar’s iconic question to Mohandas Gandhi, “Do we have a country, Mahatma?”, thus remains pertinent and so does Ambedkar’s indication that a stronger emphasis on nationalism may not be the solution for a society’s internal inequalities.

History provides us with a set of tools to subject the nation to critical enquiry. Understanding the nation as a historically specific phenomenon prevents us from treating the nation as the be-all and end-all of our existence. Thus, it helps us guard against perspectives that justify different kinds of oppression and exclusion in the name of the nation. This historical approach implies that we neither project our nation back on the past nor treat its emergence as the culmination of our civilisation’s journey. Doing either would be factually incorrect.

Pertinently, the subcontinent’s civilisational journey did not produce one nation but three. Even as we inhabit our respective nations, the realities of Partition mean that our nations have never completely subsumed us. The sense of a shared culture animates many of our lives even as we identify ourselves as Indians, Pakistanis, or Bangladeshis, while these borders mean little to workers who cross them in search of better wages and dignified life.

To respect these layered forms of belonging is to strengthen our democratic fabric, and such respect is difficult to achieve without reckoning with the nature of the nation itself. Misleading quests for past glory, that too of a narrowly conceived nation, are harmful to our democratic aspirations.

Akash Bhattacharya is a faculty member at the School of Education at Azim Premji University, Bangalore.

The views expressed are personal and do not reflect the viewpoint of any institution or organisation.