Rewriting History

NCERT and Mughals

S Irfan Habib

People are again in the midst of a perpetual and in tractable debate that revolves around the past. A section of Indians had always been ragged with the way Indian history, particularly Mughal history, had been written and taught in schools. The RSS and its cohorts are known for their pseudo-nationalistic perspective of the past, in which a section of fellow citizens have always been foreigners. They are conveniently dubbed as the progeny of the medieval Muslim rulers, while the heterogeneity and diversity of Indian Muslims are expediently ignored by these semi-literate propagandists. There is hardly a minuscule minority that can claim any linkage with the Turko-Afghan or Persian and Arab nobility of those times. The majority of Muslims are Indians who crossed over to Islam for diverse reasons–including some forced conversions, of course.

However, the discomfort of the present political dispensation with this history, both medieval and modern, is more of a toolkit to brighten their present political fortunes. Just keep the country polarised in the name of religion, spread lies about the past and reap the windfall of electoral dividends. This delusion about the perpetual religious conflict over “700 years of Muslim rule” works like an opiate for some people, where daily miseries of life are forgotten and the relentless demonising of a section becomes a national pastime. During the past few years, a big chunk of the population has internalised the hate that is spewed by spreading falsehoods about history, mainly through WhatsApp networks. Now the medieval past has been reduced merely to a Hindu-Muslim conflict zone, where the majority Hindus were brutalised by the barbaric Muslim rulers.

Sadly, even India’s history of the past 200 years, including the freedom struggle phase, is being fabricated afresh, subverting the inherited legacy of composite nationalism. The “new history” stresses more on the disagreements among national leaders, like Jawaharlal Nehru vs Sardar Patel, Subhas Bose vs Gandhi and less about their combined struggle against the British. Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Bose and others were together to challenge the communal forces led by Hindu Mahasabha and the Muslim League. The NCERT had the temerity to remove Maulana Azad from the list of senior leaders mentioned in a political science book of class XI. There is no other way to explain this mischief except for the communal hatred that couldn’t spare even Maulana Azad. Sadly, he fell victim to divisive mentality, a malaise he fought all his life.

Coming back to the Mughals first, the NCERT deletions are merely the symptoms of a larger and deeply rooted disease that had crept into the society. There always had a fringe that believed in a past, particularly medieval past, as a period when the Hindus were traumatised by the Mughal state. There were people like P N Oak who fabricated a past by creatively imagining it purely on the basis of a religious divide. He used the same hateful vision to look at the built heritage as well, where historical facts had no place, and almost all monuments of the medieval Muslim period became suspect. But now, some of the new-generation right-wingers are savvy and crafty and can smartly put together a history that conforms to the BJP’s political needs. Quite a few of them are not even trained historians but that hardly matters, even an economist can write an astute history that aligns with the ruling party’s political ideology. Here truth, facts and skill go for a toss. Thus, the interventions of the institutions like NCERT or the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) must be seen within this skewed and ideology-driven perspective.

When you decide to look at the past from the above-mentioned perspective then you end up with a disconnected history, with huge and vital gaps in the historical narrative. For example, if your ideological compulsions push you to chip away at Mughal court accounts substantially, then you deprive the coming generation of not only Mughal history but also of the profound legacy of Todarmal, Tansen, Man Singh, Birbal and so many others. Maharana Pratap’s valour cannot be narrated without Akbar and the battle of Haldhighati will have no place in history either.

Moving ahead to Aurangzeb and his war of succession against his brothers, which included Dara Shukoh, who, as people know, was a scholar, who got Upanishads translated into Persian, he also had a liberal image, as liberal as one can imagine in the 17th century. However, Aurangzeb was supported by most of the Rajput princes who did not perceive this as a religious battle. But it did not matter, the Rajput princes and also a large number of Muslim nobility saw Aurangzeb as a more competent military leader. All of them were concerned about protecting their interests. It is the communal polarisation today which perceives them as Hindu and Muslim. This blatant communal divide is clearly aimed to instil hate amongst fellow citizens for political advantage. Like Maharana Pratap, it will be difficult to celebrate Shivaji’s courage and tenacity to fight against Aurangzeb, they are all part of the connected history, so pick and choose will destroy the narrative of the past.

Even when one goes back to ancient history, one finds that Ashoka is also not spared by the proponents of the Hindutva narrative, who are blatantly attacking him for weakening India by enunciating non-violence as a follower of Buddha. Nehru is dragged into the controversy as well; it is proposed that after independence historians were encouraged to further build up the legend of Ashoka the Great to provide a lineage to Nehru’s socialist project. It is difficult to explain how scholars in European, Australian and American universities were roped into this project by Nehru. This is the history of New India based on fakery and some imagined facts.

The institutional interventions by NCERT and ICHR are all motivated by this prejudice and propaganda-driven agenda.

Bal Gangadhar Tilak defined the identity of an Indian inclusively in one of his early speeches. While delivering a lecture in Ahmadnagar on May 31, 1916, Tilak dealt with the question ‘Who is an Alien’, or to put it in today’s context one can say who is the ‘other’ whom people can’t consider a nationalist. Tilak explained it so clearly when he said that “The Muhammedan kings who ruled here at Ahmednager (I don’t call Muhammedans aliens) came to and lived in this country and at least desired that local industries should thrive. The religion may be different.” All those who are bent upon spewing hatred in the name of religious otherness, Tilak continued and said “‘Alienness’ has to do with interests. Alienness is certainly not concerned with white or black skin. Alienness is not concerned with religion”.

For him, religious differences were a minor issue when it came to defining national identity. He said about a fellow Indian, “He may not perhaps go with me to the same temple to pray to God, perhaps there may be no intermarriage and inter-dining between him and me. All these are minor questions”. He did not merely say that “Swaraj is my birth right” but also categorically explained who constituted this Swaraj of his dreams.

This inclusivist vision of history was also espoused by several other prominent nationalists like Subhas Chandra Bose, who is venerated so fervently by the present regime. Of course, he deserves that veneration, but one also needs to know his understanding of Indian history. It will be insightful to look at the views of Bose about the past, expressed so categorically in his book The Indian Struggle.

While commenting on the coming of the Muslims, he writes that “with the advent of the Mohammedans, a new synthesis was gradually worked out. Though they did not accept the religion of the Hindus, they made India their home and shared the common social life of the people-their joys and their sorrows.” He stresses the syncretism of the culture that developed during this phase, a culture which is being erased in the ongoing revision of history. He continued to write:
“Through mutual cooperation, a new art and a new culture was evolved which was different from the old but which nevertheless was distinctly Indian. In architecture, painting, music-new creations were made which represented the happy blending of the two streams of culture.”

Bose had something special to say about Akbar and the Mughals, who are under severest attack these days. He wrote:
“The great merit of Akbar was not only the political unification of the country, but what was perhaps more important, the working out of a new cultural synthesis-in order to reconcile the new stream of culture with the old-and evolve a new culture. The state machinery which he built up was also based on the whole-hearted co-operation of the Hindu and Mohammedan communities.”

This goes on to establish the point that the Mughal rule was a collaborative project of the Hindu and Muslim nobility, despite the occasional communal discord that cropped up in their relationships, affecting governance.

This is the idea of a composite India which was passed on to people as an inheritance by India’s iconic nationalists, something people need to respect while they go through the exercise of rewriting history textbooks. There can be no disagreement with the need for revision of history textbooks but that should not be at the cost of erasure, where huge sections of the past disappear merely because of religious/sectarian prejudice.


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Vol 55, No. 51, Jun 18 - 24, 2023