In 2005, the Indian historian, Romila Thapar wrote that history is a matter of evidence, not belief. For decades Thapar has been addressing so-called ‘histories’ assembled by Hindu nationalists. Thapar is of the view that Indian history in textbooks has been derived from ‘communal interpretations’ in which events in the last thousand years are interpreted solely in terms of ‘a notional continual conflict between monolithic Hindu and Muslim groups.’
Indeed, something similar happened in Pakistan as well. But from the 1980s onward, various historians began to counter this version of history. They lamented that it was not only being concocted by using distorted facts, but it was also boosting a narrow worldview which was being further soiled by religious biases. However, while in Pakistan, a course correction in this context has albeit slowly and gradually begun to colour the rhetoric and policies of the state, things seem to be getting even worse in India.
Ever since the late 1980s, militant Hindu nationalism has been on the rise in India. But it is during the last decade or so that it was finally able to wield the kind of political power and social influence which it was somewhat denied in the past.
Just as there is now a growing feeling of urgency in Pakistan to progressively and carefully reverse the concoctions found in the timeworn ideological narrative of the state (which was largely authored between the mid-1970s and the 1980s), the Cambridge University Press published a hefty book by an Indian historian, Venkat Dhulipala, which goes to great lengths in actually trying to establish the accuracy of the old narrative.
Maybe feeling awkward by the growth of Hindu militancy in ‘secular’ India, Dhulipala seems hell-bent to exhibit that Hindu militancy in India was a reaction to the confrontational nature of the old state narrative in Pakistan.
In India, historians challenging the Hindu nationalist variants of history are actually under threat, something which did not occur in Pakistan even during the heydays of the old narrative in the 1980s. One of Romila Thapar’s textbooks which was introduced in Indian schools in the 1960s, was removed from the curriculum by the BJP government. In its place a book written by Meenakshi Jain was introduced. Ms. Jain, a political scientist, has been a rather enthusiastic supporter of Hindu nationalism.
Jain indicted Thapar for depicting Hindu nationalism as a modern-day political construct entirely based on anti-Muslim prejudices. Thapar had tried to demonstrate that the so-called ‘facts’ being dished out by Hindu nationalists in the name of history had no roots in the ancient history of the Hindus of the region.
Arun Shourie, a former minister in the BJP government, penned a scornful account of historians such as Thapar in his book, Eminent Historians. He scoffed at the members of the Indian Council of Historical Research, admonishing them of being Marxists and anti-India.
When the American historian, James Laine, completed his book on the non-mythical aspects of 17th century Hindu warrior Shivaji in 2004, goons from Shiv Sena stormed the library where Laine had done his research, and set fire to a number of books.
The face of one of Laine’s Indian collaborators was smeared with black paint. Scared, those acknowledged by Laine in his book asked the government to provide them with police guards. The book was eventually banned in India.
Well-known Indian historian, Professor D. N. Jha completed his eighth book, The Myth of the Holy Cows in 2002. In it he used numerous ancient Hindu theological sources to demonstrate that cows were not always sacred in Hinduism and that ancient Hindus regularly ate beef. Jha wrote that the issues of cow worship and beef in India today were more political than theological.
After word got out about the contents of the book, its appointed publishing house was threatened (by militant Hindu groups) and asked not to publish it. The publisher withdrew and Jha had to look for another publisher. The book was finally published, but almost immediately, Jha began receiving death threats. Hindu nationalist groups demanded that Jha be arrested for heresy.
These are but just a handful of examples. Perhaps the most interesting one is how Hindu nationalists are questioning the history of one of the wonders of the world, the Taj Mahal. Mainstream history correctly records that this majestic white marble mausoleum in Agra, India was completed on the instructions of Mughal Emperor, Shah Jahan in 1653.
And yet, very few know that by the end of the Mughal era in the mid-19th century, the Taj Mahal was crumbling and in danger of collapsing. It had also been robbed over and over again by thieves and plunderers, who took away a number of precious jewels and stones that were used to beautify it.
By the mid-1800s, the Taj was nothing like the ‘wonder of the world’ it is today (or was during Mughal rule). The Taj Mahal was first restored by a British official in 1902 — Lord Curzon, the British Viceroy of India. When he first saw the mausoleum, he wrote that it had been continuously ravaged by robbers and forces of nature and was in a bad shape. He immediately ordered its restoration, and, by 1905, the Taj got a new lease of life.
Though Curzon can be praised for saving the Taj from turning into dust, another British official, William Bentinck, who rose to become the Governor-General in India in 1828, actually joined the locals in plundering it. He imported machinery and tools to rip out the precious white marble from the once majestic building and send it to Britain. In fact, according to Dr. Mubarak Ali’s book, In Search of History, the plan also included completely demolishing the building.
However, what is even more interesting is the fact that in spite of ample and irrefutable evidence available about when the building was constructed and who ordered its construction, there appeared many Indian and some British historians in the late 19th century who claimed that the Taj was not built during the Mughal reign of Shah Jahan!
Mubarak Ali laments in his book that it was the British who first initiated this trend because they could not swallow the fact that a ‘backward people’ (of India) were capable of achieving such architectural brilliance and beauty. Major Sleeman, a British officer, remarked in 1844 that the Taj was actually designed by a Frenchman, Austin de Bordeaux. British Colonialists such as Sleeman insisted (without providing any credible evidence, of course) that the design of the mausoleum was the work of European architects.
Things in this regard got even more bizarre when certain Hindu nationalist ‘historians’ began to claim that the building actually pre-dated Shah Jahan and was built before Muslim rule began in India. Such claims failed to hold in front of the overwhelming evidence available that places Shah Jahan as the man who ordered its construction in the 17th century.
In recent times one can come across books such as Taj Mahal: The True Story (by P.N. Oak) that was published in 1989 and claims that the Taj Mahal was built as a Vedic temple in 1155 and/or before Muslim rule in India, and that Shah Jahan had only acquired it from one Jai Singh. Oak claims that the supposed temple was built by Raja Paramdari Dev in the 12th century.
Oak attempts to provide multiple ‘testimonies’ to back his claim, but none of them have managed to prove their authenticity in the face of rigorous historical and scholarly scrutiny by those opposing this theory. It must be added that Oak has gone on to also try to prove that Christianity and Islam are both derivatives of Hinduism, or that the Catholic Vatican and the Westminster Abbey (along with the Taj) were all once Hindu temples to Shiva!
Many noted Indian historians have called Oak a ‘mythhistorian’ — someone who peddles myths as history — while others have described him to be a ‘pseudo-historian’, or someone like Erich von Däniken, the Swiss author who in many of his books claimed that most of the great and antique historical monuments on Earth were actually built by aliens who visited earth in ancient times!
The writer is a Pakistani journalist, cultural critic and satirist. He is the author of two books ‘End of the Past’ and ‘The Pakistan Anti-Hero.’
E-mail: [email protected]
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