Speaking at an event in Odisha in April, Narendra Modi lamented that the story of India’s freedom struggle was “limited to a few families”.
It is certainly the case that our “nationalist history” has, for the most part, effaced Adivasis and other subaltern groups. But for this prime minister to call for unhiding their histories is ironic.
One, his concern is dictated by little more than the political exigency of garnering Adivasi support for the Odisha Assembly election in 2019, and, as a long-term goal, expanding his Bharatiya Janata Party’s domination of the electoral landscape beyond the Hindi heartland.
Two, and more important, his is the most majoritarian regime in modern India. It has synthesised a violently exclusionary “Hindu identity” that is at odds with every ideal that the freedom fighters, subaltern or otherwise, sacrificed for. In fact, the BJP as the ruling party now draws legitimacy by seeking to define, through an ever narrowing set of actions and emotions, what qualifies as being Indian. Even participation in vikas, or development, is contingent on acquiescence to this new idea of citizenship. Articulate an alternative idea of Indianness and you are anti-development and, ultimately, anti-Indian. Dissent is just not allowed.
In contrast, subaltern history is founded in difference and subversion. The story and storytelling of Adivasis, Dalits, peasants, women is defined by the inversion of everything “mainstream”.
In Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency, Ranajit Guha retold the history of the Santhal rebellion, but he also retrieved it from the hold of imperial and nationalist frameworks; in the former, the event was merely a disruption of law and order and the latter projected it as a sideshow of the Independence movement. Guha decoded the rebellion as an organic solidarity movement woven by ethnicity, blood ties and space – essentially a response to the invasion of the subaltern sense of territoriality.
In Shahid Amin’s Event Metaphor and History, a meticulous revisiting of the Chauri Chaura riots which marked the end of the Non Cooperation Movement in 1922, the divergent sentiment of a village in Uttar Pradesh becomes essential to the meta narrative. Amin shows how the violence by peasants, which MK Gandhi and the national movement he led deemed criminal and distanced from, was in fact a subaltern expression of nationalist consciousness.
India’s nationalist consciousness has rejected or selectively appropriated this history of the disenfranchised to suit the narratives and ideologies of the dominant groups. Today, under Modi’s government, certain identities, practices and beliefs are openly derided as being offensive to “Indianness”. So, in this context, what will his new venture of unearthing hidden histories entail?
The BJP’s long-term project of wooing marginal groups by invoking carefully chosen, and often tweaked, bits of history is essentially aimed at reshaping public memory. The party’s championing of BR Ambedkar is an example of how history is disfigured and selectively told to appropriate even the most unlikely personalities, and events, for a present political need. In this process, the subversive subaltern legacy Ambedkar represents is hidden, not unhidden.
Will the same fate befall other subaltern histories Modi wants to unhide?
Parallely, who are the “subaltern heroes” that are meant be unhidden? Chief Minister Adityanath of Uttar Pradesh responded to Modi’s call by vowing to “correct history” by finding “hidden and unsung heroes” that have been kept away from history books under a “political conspiracy”. Of course, the chosen heroes will be those who fought Muslim rulers in medieval times and they will be stripped of any historical context that doesn’t fit in with the party’s narrative. This is one with the BJP’s old policy of removing Muslim figures from history books and public spaces.
Given all this, it is no stretch to argue that the “uncovering” of any subaltern history on the BJP’s watch can only lead to its further distortion that erases all memories of dissent and subversion.
Aditi Dey read history at Jawaharlal Nehru University. She is currently a researcher with a human insights and design solutions company based out of Mumbai.
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