Politics of history

The Sangh Parivar is at war with India’s history, which is in no small measure aided by the British rulers’ interpretations and interventions. The Somnath temple and Babri Masjid controversies are cases in point.

Published : Sep 12, 2018 12:30 IST

The Babri Masjid in 1992.

The Babri Masjid in 1992.

H ISTORY has played havoc with India’s nationalism and its secular ideal, in recent decades especially. The sport continues still to exact its grisly toll, blessed by men in the apex of power. In his very first speech to the Lok Sabha as Prime Minister, Narendra Modi moaned over 1,000 years of servitude, not 200 years under British rule.

The difference between Hindu nationalism and Indian nationalism could not have been exposed more clearly. Rahul Mahajani reported in Mid-Day of August 24, 2018, on the modus operandi of the hate group that is accused of being privy to the conspiracy to murder the rationalist Dr Narendra Dabholkar. It is said to have recruited trained and young men by “feeding [them] one-sided history” during treks, visits to old forts and through lectures. These lectures would start with the atrocities committed by Mughals and then slowly make their way into current affairs.

British rulers played a significant role in the making of India’s history. It was based on crass ignorance and was often motivated. The great Hindu civilisation and culture were ridiculed, and Muslims were denounced as oppressors from whom Hindus were liberated.

In Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth (Penguin Random House India, 2017), the author Audrey Trushke notes this about the Hindu-Muslim divide: “Such views have roots in colonial era scholarship, where positing timeless Hindu-Muslim animosity embodied the British strategy of divide and conquer” (page 100). She adds: “Modern suggestions that Rajputs and Marathas who resisted Mughal rule thought of themselves as ‘Hindus’ defying Muslims’ tyranny are just that: modern. Neither Mughal nor Maratha writers shied away from religiously tinged rhetoric in narrating this clash, especially in later accounts. But on the ground, a thirst for political power drove both the opposition to Aurangzeb’s rule and the Mughal response.”

This, the latest contribution to the debate, is unwelcome to the advocates of Hindutva, who treated this gifted scholar shabbily in Hyderabad.

In an able article in Janata , a Mumbai weekly founded by Jayaprakash Narayan, Neeraj Jain records how British rule reduced India, which until the early 18th century “was one of the world’s most developed regions[,] ...into one of the world’s poorest countries” ( Janata , July 27, 2018, page 3). This is not to deny the contributions of “court historians”, both Hindus and Muslims. Nor deny the services of later British historians who had no axe to grind.

The distinguished historian Romila Thapar has rendered high service to the historical truth with her relentless critique of radicalised distortions of history by the British and Indians alike. In an essay on communalism and ancient Indian history, she wrote: “James Mill was the most distinguished name in terms of influencing Indian historical thinking. What is perhaps the most significant aspect of Mill’s History of British India was that in a sense it laid the foundation for a communal interpretation of Indian history and thus provided the historical justification for the two-nation theory. He was the first historian to develop the thesis of dividing Indian history into three periods which he called Hindu civilisation, Muslim civilisation and British civilisation (interestingly enough, not Christian civilisation).

“That Mill should have used this scheme in such an arbitrary manner is understandable given the intellectual and political background of Utilitarian thinking. What is puzzling however is that this periodisation was accepted by subsequent historians and hardly any attempt was made until very recent years to seriously investigate its validity. Mill’s was the first recognised history of India and it made such an impact that its assumptions are still accepted in some circles. Some historians use the nomenclature of ancient, medieval and modern in periodising Indian history but the basis of the division remains the same as that of Mill, i.e., a change in the religion of the major dynasties of the time. Mill’s History became the basic text of the administrators in India, and British historians of the nineteenth century came largely from the ranks of the administrators. Another aspect of Mill’s History was that he was severely critical of Hindu culture and described it as being backward, inimical to progress and anti-rational. He was more sympathetic to what he called ‘Muslim civilisation’ although even this was not spared scathing criticism at times. This led to a section of the Orientalists and later to Indian historians having to defend ‘Hindu civilisation’ even if it meant over glorifying the ancient past” (Thapar, Romila, Harbans Mukia and Bipan Chandra (1969): Communalism and the Writing of Indian History , People’s Publishing House, page 4).

Particularly baleful were British contributions on the Somnath temple and the Babri Masjid. On January 29, 1885, Mahant Raghubar Das filed a civil suit against the Secretary of State for India for “awarding permission to construct a temple over the Chabutra Janam Asthan, situated in Ayodhya” (paragraph 5 of the plaint). The chabutra was well outside the Babri Masjid but within the complex. The mahant made no claim whatever to the masjid . Hindus prayed at the chabutra as the birthplace of Shri Ram Chandraji. Had permission been granted, the matter would have received a quietus then. A similar solution was proposed on the eve of the installation of the idols inside the mosque, by force and deceit, on the night of December 22/23,1949, but was not followed. It was revived in 1987 but met the same fate.

Hari Kishan, the sub judge, dismissed the suit on December 24, 1885. The appeal was heard by a colonel of the British Army, one E.E.A. Chamier, District Judge, Faizabad. He dismissed it on March 18, 1886, but not before delivering in the very first paragraph of his judgment a remark that was as irrelevant as it was false and mischievous: “It is most unfortunate that a masjid should have been built on land specially held sacred by the Hindus, but as the event occurred 356 years ago it is too late now to remedy the grievances.” No such grievance was made by the mahant or Hari Kishan. The case concerned the chabutra, not the mosque. The offence was repeated by W. Young, Judicial Commissioner, Oudh, on November 1 while dismissing the appeal with an even more offensive remark: “a mosque erected some 350 years ago owing to the bigotry and tyranny of the Emperor Babur, who purposely chose this holy spot according to Hindu legend as the site of his mosque”. Unlike judges of a later century, the British judge gave primacy to the law of the land over a community’s faith. The appeal was dismissed. But that Judge Young expressed an opinion on “legend”, not history, reveals his approach (For the texts of the document, see Noorani, A.G. (2003): The Babri Masjid Question 1528-2003 , Tulika).

Brazen intervention

Intervention in the case of the Somnath temple was brazen and more political with a view to arouse Hindus against Muslims. The facts are fully recorded in John William Kaye’s History of the War in Afghanistan ((1851): Volume 2, Richard Bentley: London). The East India Company ruled India until the British government took over in 1858 after the Mutiny.

Governor General Lord Ellenborough drew up an address to the princes and people of India. It was translated into “the Hindee and was published in its English dress” on November 16, 1842. Its text reads thus:

“From the Governor General to all the Princes and Chiefs, and People of India.

My Brothers and my Friends,

Our victorious army bears the gates of the temple of Somnath in triumph from Afghanistan, and the despoiled tomb of Sultan Mahomed looks upon the ruins of Ghuznee.

The insult of eight hundred years is at last avenged. The gates of the temple of Somnath, so long the memorial of your humiliation, are become the proudest record of your national glory, the proof of your superiority in arms over the nations beyond the Indus.

To you, Princes and Chiefs of Sirhind, of Rajwara, of Malwa, and of Guzerat, I shall commit this glorious trophy of successful war.

You will yourselves, with all honour, transmit the gates of sandal-wood through your respective territories to the restored temple of Somnath.

The Chiefs of Sirhind shall be informed at what time our victorious army will first deliver the gates of the temple into their guardianship, at the foot of the bridge of the Sutlej.

My Brothers and Friends,

I have ever relied with confidence upon your attachment to the British government. You see how worthy it proves itself of your love, when, regarding your honour as its own, it exerts the power of its arms to restore to you the gates of the temple of Somnath, so long the memorial of your subjection to the Afghans.

For myself, identified with you in interest and in feeling, I regard with all your own enthusiasm the high achievements of that heroic army; reflecting alike immortal honour upon my native and upon my adopted country.

To preserve and to improve the happy union of our two countries, necessary as it is to the welfare of both, is the constant object of my thoughts. Upon that union depends the security of every ally, as well as of every subject of the British government, from the miseries whereby, in former times, India was afflicted: through that alone has our army now waved its triumphant standards over the ruins of Ghuznee, and planted them upon the Balla Hissar of Caubul.

May that good Providence, which has hitherto so manifestly protected me, still extend to me its favour that I may so use the power now entrusted to my hands, as to advance your prosperity and secure your happiness, by placing the union of our two countries upon foundations which may render it eternal.


Kaye remarks: “No document that ever emanated from the bureau of a statesman has been overwhelmed with so much ridicule as this. It is still fresh in the recollection of men who dwelt in India at this time, how the authenticity of the proclamation was gravely doubted—how many, at first, declared their conviction that it was a newspaper satire upon the Napoleonic style of address which Lord Ellenborough had recently adopted; and how at last, when it came to be known—thoroughly known and understood—that it was a genuine emanation from the ‘Political Department’, with the right official stamp upon it, such a flood of ridicule and censure was let loose upon it as had never before descended upon an Indian state paper. The folly of the thing was past all denial. It was a folly, too, of the most senseless kind, for it was calculated to please none and to offend many. It was addressed to ‘all the Princes and Chiefs, and People of India’. The ‘Brothers and Friends’ thus grandiloquently apostrophised, were a mixed family of Mahomedans and Hindoos. Upon the Mahomedans it was an open and most intelligible outrage. To the Hindoos, the pompous offer of the polluted gates of Somnath was little better than a covert insult. The temple to which it was to have been restored was in ruins, and the sacred ground trodden by Mahomedans. Looking at the effusion from the Oriental side, it was altogether a failure and an abortion. Among Europeans, worldly men scouted the proclamation as a folly, and religious men denounced it as a crime. It was said to be both dangerous and profane.”

Censure motion

Ellenborough received his just deserts from Thomas Babington Macaulay on March 9, 1843. Vernon Smith moved a censure motion in the House of Commons. It was rejected by 242 votes to 157. Macaulay’s speech excoriated Ellenborough with all the force of his legendary eloquence though he perpetrated some excesses of his own.

“Our duty, as rulers, was to preserve strict neutrality on all questions merely religious: and I am not aware that we have ever swerved from strict neutrality for the purpose of making proselytes to our own faith. But we have, I am sorry to say, sometimes deviated from the right path in the opposite direction.”

“In order to curry favour with the Hindoos he has offered inexpiable insult to the Mahomedans; and now, in order to quiet the English, he is forced to disappoint and disgust the Hindoos. But, apart from the irritating effect which these transactions must produce on every part of the native population, is it no evil to have this continual wavering and changing? This is not the only case in which Lord Ellenborough has, with great pomp, announced intentions which he has not been able to carry into effect. It is his lordship’s habit. He put forth a notification that his Durbar was to be honoured by the presence of Dost Mahomed. Then came a notification that Dost Mahomed would not make his appearance there. In the proclamation which we are now considering his lordship announced to all the princes of India his resolution to set up these gates at Somnath. The gates, it is now universally admitted, will not be set up there. All India will see that the Governor General has changed his mind. The change may be imputed to mere fickleness and levity. It may be imputed to the disapprobation with which his conduct has been regarded here. In either case he appears in a light in which it is much to be deplored that a Governor General should appear.

“So much for the serious side of this business; and now for the ludicrous side. Even in our mirth, however, there is sadness; for it is no light thing that he who represents the British nation in India should be a jest to the people of India. We have sometimes sent them governors whom they loved, and sometimes governors whom they feared; but they never before had a governor at whom they laughed. Now, however, they laugh; and how can we blame them for laughing, when all Europe and all America are laughing too? You see, sir, that the gentlemen opposite cannot keep their countenances. And no wonder. Was such a state paper ever seen in our language before? And what is the plea set up for all this bombast? Why, the honourable gentleman, the Secretary of the Board of Control, brings down to the House some translations of Persian letters from native princes. Such letters, as everybody knows, are written in a most absurd and turgid style.

“The honourable gentleman forces us to hear a good deal of this detestable rhetoric; and then he asks why, if the secretaries of the Nizam and of the King of Oude use all these tropes and hyperboles, Lord Ellenborough should not indulge in the same sort of eloquence? The honourable gentleman might as well ask why Lord Ellenborough should not sit cross-legged, why he should not let his beard grow to his waist, why he should not wear a turban, why he should not hang trinkets all about his person, why he should not ride about Calcutta on a horse jingling with bells and glittering with the false pearls. The native princes do these things; and why should not he? Why, sir, simply because he is not a native prince, but an English Governor General. When the people of India see a Nabob or a Rajah in all his gaudy finery, they bow to him with a certain respect. They know that the splendour of his garb indicates superior rank and wealth. But if Sir Charles Metcalfe had so bedizened himself, they would have thought that he was out of his wits. They are not such fools as the honourable gentleman takes them for. Simplicity is not their fashion. But they understand and respect the simplicity of our fashions.…

“But the honourable gentleman is mistaken in thinking that this proclamation is in the Oriental taste. It bears no resemblance to the very bad Oriental compositions which he has read to us, nor to any other Oriental compositions that I ever saw. It is neither English nor Indian. It is not original, however; and I will tell the House where the Governor General found his models. He has apparently been studying the rants of the French Jacobins during the period of their ascendancy, the Carmagnoles of the Convention, the proclamations issued by the Directory and its Proconsuls: and he has been seized with a desire to imitate those compositions. The pattern which he seems to have especially proposed to himself is the rodomontade in which it was announced that the modern Gauls were marching to Rome in order to avenge the fate of Dumnorix and Vercingetorix.”

The destruction of a house of worship deserves the severest condemnation. Romila Thapar puts the destruction of the Somnath temple in perspective. “Mahmud of Ghazni is primarily associated in most standard histories as the despoiler of temples and the breaker of idols. The explanation for this activity is readily provided by the fact that he was a Muslim—the assumption being that only a Muslim would despoil temples and break idols since the Islamic religion is opposed to idol worship. There is the further assumption in this that all Muslim rulers could be potential idol-breakers unless some other factors prevented them from doing so. Little attempt is made to search for further explanations regarding Mahmud’s behaviour. Other reasons can be found when one turns to the tradition of Hindu kings and enquires whether any of them were despoilers of temples and idol-breakers. Here we come across the case of Harsha, an eleventh century king of Kashmir, for whom the despoiling of temples was an organised, institutionalised activity. Kalhana informs us in the Rajatarangini that Harsha appointed a special officer, the devotpatananayaka (literally, the officer appointed for the uprooting of the gods) whose special job it was to plunder the temples. Here clearly the explanation cannot be that he was a religious iconoclast but that he plundered temples for their wealth which wealth he used for other purpose....

“Historians cannot allow the discipline of history to degenerate to the extent that false history becomes instrumental in the promotion of political mythology. Since historians can, consciously or unconsciously, become the intellectual progenitors of political beliefs, the analysis of history thereby becomes particularly crucial to political ideologies.”

The Sangh Parivar is at war with India’s history. Hindu-Muslim interaction over the centuries produced a composite Indian culture and fostered Indian nationalism. That was attacked by the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh in the name of Hindutva. Rewriting history is on a par with ghar wapsi. India belongs to Hindus, its “original inhabitants”. Since the “invaders”, Muslim and Christian, cannot be expelled, they must be assimilated. Modi’s policies and actions are shaped to achieve that goal.

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