With India’s medieval history irrevocably communalised, the rise of the BJP now portends a steady reworking of modern history to suit its Hindutva agenda
[A version of this piece was first published on Scroll.in]
When well-meaning people protest history being politicised, it’s a bit like complaining about water being wet. Nineteenth century ideals of positivism, of history being an objective science seem to still be extremely popular. Of course, there is nothing perfectly objective about the writing of history—subjectivity in interpreting facts is a necessary part of the discipline. This also means that history can be, and often is, utilised by politics for its own needs. After all, whoever controls the past tends to controls the future.
It is in this light that we must see the flurry of activity in the usually sedate world of academic history ever since the Modi government assumed power with an absolute majority on May 16. Most recently, the Akhil Bhartiya Itihas Sankalan Yojana (ABISY), a historical research organisation with ties to the RSS, held a symposium to celebrate Hemu, the so-called last Hindu king of Delhi, who controlled the city with his Afghan forces for exactly 29 days. Unfortunately, like so much of Hindutva “history”, the core facts of the argument were simply made up and, in one rather hilarious example, scenes from the Bollywood movie Jodha Akbar were screened as part of a “documentary” on the period.
Medieval history has already been communalised
The ABISY might have made a hash of things, but it must be noted that at the popular—and political—level, the object of politicising medieval history has already been realised. Publicly, India has disowned the Muslim rulers who governed most of the subcontinent. Delhi and Agra might have been the capitals of the vast Mughal Empire but Mughals today are absent from the city’s roundabouts where you’re far more likely to find a statue of Shivaji, who ruled a kingdom 1,500 km away. On the Internet, there are many rants about roads named after Mughals in Delhi, but the fact is that in independent India, street nomenclature has scrupulously avoided medieval Muslim monarchs: the existing “Aurangzeb Road” and so on are parting gifts bequeathed by the British builders of Lutyens’ Delhi. In Lucknow, there is a road named after Maharana Pratap of Mewar but, ironically, Wajid Ali Shah, the tragic last nawab of the city itself, has been ignored by Lucknow’s civic planners.
Medieval therefore being won, the real fight is in more recent history. And some headway has already been made there, starting with attacks on Nehru, whose liberal policies make him a special hate figure in the Sangh Parivar. Modi set the ball rolling right at the campaign stage where he opined that Patel would have made a better Prime Minster than Nehru, echoing his guru, M.S. Gowalkar who greatly admired the Sardar as well.
However, communalising modern history isn’t going to be as easy as medieval history was. The latter has been undergoing this process since the time of the British who found it convenient to silo India’s history into “Hindu” and “Muslim”. The communalisation of modern history, though, is something which is far more recent. This explains the paradox of Modi, quite suddenly, calling upon the legacies of Nehru and Gandhi as he tries to build political capital for his schemes. Nehru as a political icon is no pushover and while Modi might love to snap his fingers and have the Pandit airbrushed from the scene, currently he will have to compromise with the past in order to secure his future.
India’s potential new icons
This does not mean an abject surrender to the Nehruvian version of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries but a steady erosion of it. Sure enough, the previous budget had social schemes named after Right-Wing stalwarts such as Shyama Prasad Mukherjee, Deendayal Upadhyaya and Madan Mohan Malaviya. All three are relatively unknown in the popular discourse but hold a special significance for the BJP as well as the larger Hindutva movement.
Shyama Prasad Mukherjee was the founder of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, a party he started with the backing of the RSS in 1951 after falling out with Nehru. He persuaded the RSS to involve itself directly in political affairs. Till then the RSS had avoided politics, preferring to direct its energies towards Hindu society instead. The current BJP is, of course, the direct successor of the Jana Sangh. For its position on Kashmir and Article 370, the BJP takes direct inspiration from Mukherjee, even as it ignores the fact that he was a party to the disastrous decision to refer to the Kashmir issue to the UN.
Organisationally, however, Mukherjee had a limited impact on the Jana Sangh since he died within only two years of its founding. After that, Deendayal Upadhyaya took up the task of building up the Jana Sangh and had a seminal role to play in shaping the party’s ideology. His philosophical tract, Integral Humanism still has a key impact on the BJP, even being named in several manifestos. In it, Upadhyaya lays out the Hindutva view of India, rejecting Individualism and even Capitalism, both of which he characterised as Western imports alien to India and supported an “organic” form of the caste system which he felt would lead to a harmonious society. His social agenda has survived more or less intact in the BJP till this day. Upadhyaya’s Swadeshi economic agenda is less popular but rears its head every now and then as was demonstrated by Modi’s protectionist decision to reject the WTO’s Trade Facilitation Agreement.
Madan Mohan Malaviya is, of course, a Congress leader having been the party’s president on two occasions (1910 and 1918). But, like Patel, Malaviya’s religious and social conservatism endears him to today’s BJP. Additionally, he is also one of the early leaders of the Hindu Mahasabha, which during his time, functioned as a Hindu nationalist pressure group within the Congress (it would delineate itself as an independent party in the late 30s under the leadership of Savarkar). Malaviya founded the Banaras Hindu University with the aim of upholding Hindu tradition, including a hereditary caste system, even as he strongly opposed untouchability, correlating it to Muslim and Christian conversion, a strain of thinking which strongly influences the Hindu Right.
Fairly or unfairly, depending on your own political proclivities, Nehru, Gandhi and then Indira and Rajiv have dominated our public airwaves, as the Congress tried to cement its rule with help from its past icons. With the verdict of May 16, a realignment of the historical stars is on the plate. Already the BJP’s chief Twitter intellectual Subramaniam Swamy, never one to miss a chance at medievalism, has called for the books of Nehruvian historians to be “burnt in a bonfire”. “It is important to resize the stature that Nehru enjoys in Indian history,” said Swamy later on in an op-ed in The Hindu. Slowly the BJP will push its own icons to replace the old Nehruvian ones. This will include fellow ideological travellers such as Vallabhbhai Patel, Madan Malaviya, Dayanand Saraswati and Swami Vivekananda but will also include people such as S.P. Mukherjee and Deendayal Upadhyaya who have contributed organisationally to make the BJP what it is today.