It is a refrain familiar to anyone who has encountered a Hindu nationalist rant. The Indian academic establishment, especially in the discipline of history, has been dominated by hypocritical Marxists who have been closely associated with the Congress, India’s ruling party for many decades, they claim. In the name of secularism, these academics have sought to legitimise the Congress and justify its policies of Muslim appeasement. To do this, academics, like their activist fellow travelers, have suppressed Hindu sufferings past and present and rationalised acts of violence committed by Muslims or sneaky conversions carried out by Christians.
Now, it so happens that this picture is a perfectly inverted mirror image of what the Hindu Right itself has sought to do, whether by erasing the achievements of Muslims from textbooks, cooking up acts of Hindu courage that never really happened, or getting several Hindu historians, from Dinanath Batra to Rakesh Sinha, to defend the project of the Sangh and the rule of the Bharatiya Janata Party. Makes sense. For by doing so, the Hindu Right has created the spectre of an evil historiographic twin that it needs to vanquish, exactly like a righteous warrior from a Hindu epic might slay an adversary.
Yet, in the midst of this tangled web, there are some genuine questions that warrant a serious response.
With regard to the historiography of religious violence in the Indian past and present, there is a kernel of truth to the accusation that Muslim violence in the form of invasions and temple destructions has been insufficiently acknowledged by credentialised academic historians. The knee-jerk response to Muslim invasions by Left activists used to be that caste Hindus were descendants of Aryans, who were also invaders. With the Aryan invasion theory itself discredited, the Left-liberal response now centres on making the case that Hindus also destroyed temples, or repeating the Richard Eaton thesis that the destruction of temples by Muslim rulers was a political rather than a religious act. The problem with these responses is that they undermine that other exceptionalist Left-liberal cliché of India as a land of unique religious tolerance. As for the Eaton thesis, how does one distinguish the political from the religious without making a troublingly essentialist argument about what constitutes the authentically religious?
The distinguished Indian economist Pranab Bardhan has suggested that the idea of India as a pluralist and secular society had to be very strongly stressed (one may say, exaggerated) in the aftermath of Partition to quell the bad blood between communities and to allay the fears of minorities. This may have, indeed, been needed to help a fledgling nation move past the trauma and as insurance against future riots. But, to its detriment, that vision, though rooted in historical reality, also sought to cynically consecrate the Congress as the natural inheritor and guarantor of Indian secularism, both the inevitable product of its authentic past and the ideal custodian of its future.
The academic and activist Left has also been guilty of doublespeak on violence in the present, committed by the majority and minorities. Violence by minorities or insurgents, whether Muslims, Sikhs or Naxals, has often been romanticised as resistance, such as by Arundhati Roy, or sought to be explained as provoked, such as by Teesta Setalvad in the immediate aftermath of the burning of the Sabarmati Express in Godhra, Gujarat, in 2002. But the provocation thesis, as Pratap Bhanu Mehta has rightly pointed out, is a slippery slope. What prevents anyone from making the case that the anti-Muslim Gujarat riots were provoked by the burning of kar sevaks in the train that fateful day? Swapan Dasgupta might well argue, invoking John Locke, Edmund Burke and Sukumar Ray, that Hindus were provoked by Babur into destroying the Babri Masjid.
It is fair criticism, too, that the Congress has encouraged a culture of rewarding academic flatterers, by appointing them to plum institutional positions. Principled scholars such as Ramachandra Guha who have refused to sing the praises of the Gandhi dynasty have lost out on professional opportunities for which they have been ideally qualified.
However, what the BJP has done with rewarding incompetent ideologues from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its affiliates to academic posts is behave like the Congress on steroids. Yet, even during peak hegemony, the Congress did not seek to completely control the production of academic history. For every outright flatterer or court historian, there have also been fiercely independent scholars such as Romila Thapar who have steadfastly refused any state honours. Left-leaning academics such as Partha Chatterjee have been among the most trenchant critics of the Congress. Left-liberal scholars were also the leading voices demanding justice for Shah Bano in her landmark legal battle for compensation from her estranged husband, and for the victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. The Congress did not hound and harass these scholars, attack them through proxies, or put them in danger by demonising them as anti-national. The one, partial, exception to this was the Emergency – a 21-month period in the 1970s during which civil liberties were curbed, press freedom censored and the government’s political rivals jailed – but that aberration seems to have become the norm during BJP rule.
In short, the idea of some deep-rooted anti-Hindu Marxist academic conspiracy is nonsense.
The conspiracy theory, endorsed by the likes of Madhu Kishwar on Twitter these days, is further undermined by bizarre claims about some global anti-Hindu nexus involving Marxists, their good American friends the Central Intelligence Agency, Barkha Dutt, and the pope. Notwithstanding some of the valid points of critique it has raised, if the Hindu Right is serious about a critique of dominant post-Independence Indian historiography, it will need to do all of the following. It will need to separate the wheat from the chaff in terms of substantive historical theses, it will need to look hard at its own less-than-glorious history of collaboration with the British, and it will need to understand the genealogy of its own origins in the colonial and orientalist narrative about India. In short, it will have to stop being a Hindu nationalist movement. Frankly, the Taj Mahal is more likely to turn out to be a Hindu structure than for that to happen.
Rohit Chopra is Associate Professor of Communication at Santa Clara University. He runs the Twitter account @IndiaExplained and is the founder of india-explained.com.
Corrections and clarifications: An earlier version of this article had misspelled Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire, as Babar.