Choices and struggles

Print edition : November 01, 2013

December 5, 1992: Kar Sevaks at the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. Photo: subir roy

The book encapsulates the righteous indignations of a sensitive historian who is unhappy with the way politics has been drifting into the narrow alleys of obscurantist jingoism and sectarian hatred.

ONE of the acknowledged duties of the historian is to tell us what happened in the past and make sense of it as history. But he is not always allowed his freedom or academic innocence.

History is so bound with the passions and concerns of the present and our hopes for the future that someone had once asked, with a mischievous wink, if history was concerned with the past at all. The insinuation has profound implications to the writing of history and to society, which is its user. It makes history a contested terrain, and the contest is both ideological and political. It demands that we make our choice of what is good against what is bad and dangerous to our society. A cloistered historian or an uncritical reader of history who makes no political choice hands over both the past and the present to wrong politics and its vicious practitioners.

This idea of “history as a site of struggle” pervades this book of that name, which has put together Professor K.N. Panikkar’s various lectures at public meetings and his writings in the popular media over the past three decades in what the editor rightly calls “a kind of Omnibus of his ‘activistic’ writings”.

The book is a hefty kit of 77 articles and lectures grouped under five heads: History and Historiography (15), National Politics (21), Communal Politics (20), Education (9) and Culture (12). Though written at different times and addressed to different audiences, some definite strands of conviction and logic run through them, which not only give them a discernible unity but show their author as the one who has made his choice as to where he should stand in the site of struggle.

One such strand is that free India is not really free since it has not been able to divest itself of some of the insidious inheritance of colonialism. The national movement was conscious of its deleterious effects but was itself in some ways infected by it, so much so that the boundary between the national and the communal got frustratingly blurred and produced Partition and the endless recriminations thereon as its denouement. The wise makers of the Constitution and the Nehruvian leadership had tried their best to keep the communal virus out, but after a spell of incubation it has come back to become a major threat to inclusive nation-building. Panikkar’s vision of the nation is integrative, which honours the rich plurality of the country and has no place for the domination of the majority, a fear that was politically harnessed under British rule, and in the national movement. But communal ideology in free India is propped up by the proclaimed fear of the minorities among Hindus and the fear of the majority among the minorities.

Panikkar is critical of both forms of communalism. He does not accept the familiar argument that one is the cause of the other, although the one tends to keep the other in combative readiness, or gets justified as defensive compulsion.

Right-wing critics have pointed out that Panikkar does not train his guns against Muslim communalism as readily as he does against Hindu communalism. The argument is flawed because such critics do not accept that Hindu communalism exists at all, nor does fairness consist in equitable apportioning of the blame.

But central to Panikkar’s argument is the belief that the communalism of the majority partakes of all the characteristics of fascism on the prowl. The ideology of Hindutva is all about hammering the minorities and other little identities into a single mould of acquiescence, marshalling a bullying argument that the country belongs to the majority and that the majority can do no wrong. Though Hindutva is presented as a cultural project, its combative stance is based on the making of political Hinduism, which is a travesty of what Hinduism is known to stand for.

In fact, it is the loose federative character of Hinduism that political Hinduism rejects. In other words, Hindutva is the reordering of Hinduism in the fascist mould. This project, explains Panikkar, has taken many forms and has made many experiments. One is to declare, as did V.D. Savarkar in the scripturesque book Hindutva, which he wrote in 1923, that India belongs to Hindus and to none else; the others are only ghar ke baaharwaley, or “outsiders who are not of our home”, to quote Guru Golwalkar’s phrase. This idea has led Hindutva ideologues to grab history to make it do their bidding. Indian history, for them, ought to be Hindu history, its glorious epochs the ones that celebrate Hindu glory and announce the wickedness of outsiders.

Panikkar is consistently critical of this theory and the practice of delegitimising any history other than Hindu history, demonising Islam and its presence in the past and the present, and attempts to make the textbooks of history conform. Propaganda is more effective when its target is the young and impressionable. In the process, history has not only ceased to be an “inquiry” but has become an instrument of propaganda. The repudiation of the theory that Aryans had their origins outside India, rendering the Harappan culture (now Saraswathi civilisation, to deny any share of its glory to Pakistan) Aryan by reading Sanskrit into its seals and inventing the horse as reinforcement, locating the Golden Ages in the Hindu past and portraying the medieval Muslim period as an unrelieved story of temple destruction and eclipse of Hindu culture are but parts of this communal discourse. In fact, none has continued the colonial tradition of history writing more passionately than the communal ideologues in India. These are not simply disagreements over historical questions but constitute the discourse within which the nation is conceived and sought to be ordered.

This is evident in the way communal politics has played out the programmes in India. The Babri Masjid-Rama Janmabhoomi imbroglio was essentially an irredentist project of asserting the Hindu might and making political capital out of it. People who despised vote-bank politics practised it on a national scale by making ‘God’ Rama himself contest the elections! Panikkar shows how in the whole controversy, history and faith played a game of hide-and-seek to communalise the societal attitude and vitiate its thinking. Its consequences in the form of simmering or exploding communalism after the Babri Masjid demolition or in post-Godhra Gujarat, which Panikkar regards as a dress rehearsal for fascist politics, the various terrorist outfits that have stalked the country, vandalising the paintings of M.F. Husain and exhibitions of SAHMAT, asserting the only as against many Ramayanas, and the ways in which India has been made to participate in the dangerous game of “clash of civilization” are well-known. Panikkar had been following these events with sadness, concern and indignation and writing on them. Reading them in one omnibus collection is both a cure for amnesia and a reminder that there were yet protesting voices of reason when sanity seemed to be taking a holiday.

The anthology has many evaluative essays on the trajectories of historical writing on modern India in which figure the “Cambridge School”, which has now spent itself out, and the “Subaltern School”, which has mutated into something different in both form and scope, “EMS as Historian”, and an appreciation of Sarvepalli Gopal as a colleague and practitioner of history.

There are also some insightful essays on the Great Rebellion of 1857, the nature of Indian Renaissance, a profile of Bhagat Singh as a revolutionary and many other historical themes that have been reappraised. But mostly, the emphasis is on present politics because that always seemed to be decisive in ordering both our history and the blueprint for our future. It has its bearing on the understanding and making of our culture because state and politics decide on its legitimacy or otherwise. Panikkar has shown that there have been rude attempts to revise the idea of culture since the days of Nehru. The idea that our culture was a palimpsest of many overwritings and erasures has been sought to be replaced by a picture of unitary, unchanging culture that is brahmanically Hindu. Any unchanging culture, paradoxical though it may seem, is not a living culture, and Indian culture is alive precisely because it has dialogued with others and in the process introspected, critiqued, accepted, amended and rejected its own and those of others in lively dialectic.

Defiance of orthodoxies, growth of heterodoxies, assertive caste movements in history, and evolution of vernaculars have all gone into the making of a polychromatic Indian culture, which, according to Panikkar, should be acknowledged and preserved not with a condescending sense of tolerance or sufferance but with mutual self-respect. But the marauding communal ideologies, promoted as much by hyperactive communal outfits as by effete secular parties, seemed to have made significant gains in the country. Secular space is being increasingly lost to political religions and their mundane practices.

One of the strategies adopted to secure that space is to control education. Panikkar shows that this was done by starting thousands of schools through which communal ideologies could be disseminated and, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was in power, through control of the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT) to make education amenable to the promotion of right-wing ideologies such as retrograde attempts to introduce Vedic Mathematics, jyotish (astrology), and karmakanda (a section of the Vedas) as part of university syllabi. At the same time, there was “A Policy Framework for Reforms in Education”, prepared by industrialists such as Mukesh Ambani and Kumar Mangalam Birla which advocated the creation of a market-led, knowledge-based society, which did not have much room for liberal education. “An important attribute of knowledge production is specialisation, but the absence of a liberal content in it devalues education into mere training.”

Globalisation, to which the country has spread its red carpet, has been both an ally and a justification in this shift in which liberal education is rendered redundant. Knowledge is judged not as a road to wisdom and understanding of the world but for its market value. In the surrounding glitter, globalisation presents itself as an expansion of possibilities, while masking its annexationist realities. Panikkar is critical of this bumptious trend, and as a kind of a prophylactic wants local cultures to assert themselves to preserve and create their own little universes. This would not only ensure that we honour and protect our rich pluralities in the making of our nation but also act as a bulwark against those forces at work that want to erase them.

History as a Site of Struggle encapsulates the righteous indignations of a sensitive activist of a historian who is unhappy with the way politics has been drifting into the narrow alleys of obscurantist jingoism and sectarian hatred. Panikkar has been an eminent academic, but, as the editor rightly puts it, “he has spent as much time teaching outside classrooms as inside; as much labour writing for popular media as in academic journals”. The essays on offer in the anthology may, at times, sound repetitive since they were written at different times in response to different provocations. But the views expressed there have a conviction, which is both consistent and uncompromising. They are politically positioned and they are not expressed with a please-all grin. Panikkar is sure that secularism is good for the country and communalism bad and that a progressive nation cannot be built except on this foundational belief. But there are many in the country who think otherwise, by conviction or for convenience.

Politics will ever be a contentious issue, where we cannot avoid making our choices and history will always remain a site of struggle. The book recognises this honestly and wants its readers too to make their choices.

Professor B. Surendra Rao was formerly with the Department of History, Mangalore University.

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