All drafts of history are selective, manipulative, constructed, and convenient interpretations of information. It is clear that the current moment of ascendancy of the Hindutva regime and ideology is witnessing an attempt at producing another edit – a third draft – one that promises to take Indian history back, closer in some ways to the British first draft, but with cultural origin stories that go much further back in time.
This draft entails yet another selective – one could even say juvenile – reading of Sanskrit texts, a demonisation of all things Muslim, and an erasure of the Nehru-Gandhi influence to be replaced by the ideological leaders of early Hindutva like Deendayal Upadhyaya and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. It involves serious attempts to bring “nationalism” back into the political space, along with new definitions of patriotism, Hinduism, its enemies, the legacy of the Congress Party, and Hindutva’s founding fathers.
It is doubtful, however, whether it is possible, in this information age, to redraft history at this large a scale because the job of redrafting history is considerably more difficult now than it was 200 or even 50 years ago...
The simplest answer to the question of why redrafting history is considerably more difficult now is that the realm of information has changed in fundamental ways. This has made it close to impossible to establish any single interpretation – whether it is homogeneous Hindutva or heterogeneous pluralism – as the only and unchallenged interpretation.
For one thing, there are others, such as Dalit intellectuals, followers of Bhimrao Ambedkar, and professional historians, who are keen to rewrite history from below, from the perspective of the subaltern, the “people without history”. But even more important in a general sense is the fact that from a condition of information scarcity in the colonial period, we are in a period of information abundance. Even if Dalits did not exist as a social category, or Dr Ambedkar’s fierce intellect had never been born, the new information technology would, by itself, have made it impossible to make unchallenged claims on truth.
In what is being called the information age, the question arises whether the government is still the sole purveyor of truth, or whether its role now is one of manipulating, or trying to manipulate – based on its own interest – public opinion which is fragmented among multiple claims on truth. Certainly, the government is no longer solely in charge of creating information. There are many sources of information: print and TV are both many times larger than merely 20 years ago (there are close to 400 TV channels devoted to news alone).
Plus there are the Internet and social and mobile media. There are satellites overhead and unmanned drones, mobile phones with cameras in every other hand, websites sitting on servers located any and everywhere in the world, Facebook and Twitter, and hackers of Facebook, Twitter and email systems, and universities, mostly overseas, employing scholars and experts on India who “theorise” and “narrate” and simplify it to serve their own career interests in the Western academy. There are many narratives out there and many narrators. Whom does one believe?
The creators of information now range from people with almost no asset other than a mobile phone to people who own or run multinationals, or giant corporations, or media conglomerates, or political parties.
No disseminator of information is a disinterested entity. At a minimum, they are biased; at worst, they have direct career or commercial or political motives. In India, with the increasing intertwining of business and media ownership, information is certainly more commercial and arguably more political than in any previous period. Not only are there “fake news” and “alternative facts”, but there are also “paid news” and “advertorials” (both are advertisements that pose as news or opinion), not to speak of extortion and blackmail.
In this information age, there is, by definition, more information of greater complexity emanating from a larger number of sources than ever before. There is an ever-increasing need for simple information but ever-growing challenges to simple narratives. What happens, we need to ask, when the government is no longer the sole or primary source of information, nor is it able to control the quantity, flow, or content of the information? What happens when this seeming reduction in government power is combined with the politics generated by its past control of information and power to create categories?
What happens, for instance, when the government creates the Scheduled Caste category, but then loses control over the narrative of Dalit politics?
Alternatively, replace “Dalit” with “OBC”. What happens when if some event is not on video, it might as well have not taken place? What happens when we cannot differentiate “real” videos from “fake” ones, and even if we can, people still believe the one they want to believe anyway?
In other words, what happens when the “signals” invented in the recent past commingle with the “noise” generated by the information age? How does one extract a signal from this new noise? Does the production of more information actually reduce “facts”? Is the information age also post-truth? Or has information always been post-truth – from gossip in the Roman agora to rumours that sparked the Indian Sepoy rebellion; the only difference now being that there is more news, real and fake, because there is more information in general, that is, more stories – and more ways to access it?
These are questions that resonate not just in India but around the world because of phenomena like Arab Spring, Brexit, Trumpism, climate change denial, and conspiracy theories (on 9/11, vaccination-induced autism, and so on).
Excerpted with permission from The Truth about Us: The Politics of Information from Manu to Modi, Sanjoy Chakravorty, Hachette India.