Hindutva and its ‘mhystory’
PRADIP KUMAR DATTA
THE relationship between Hindutva and history has generated intense debate among anti-communalists for over a decade now. The ball was set rolling by a booklet issued by the Centre for Historical Studies, JNU in 1989 entitled ‘The Political Abuses of History: Babri Masjid/Ramjanmabhumi Dispute’. It carefully marshalled evidence to question the Hindutva claim that Ram was an actual individual who had been born where the Babri Masjid stood.
Interestingly, the pamphlet provoked much criticism from anti-communalists who were also anti-secularist, including scholars such as Veena Das and Ashis Nandy. They thought that to contest Hindutva claims on the basis of evidence not only missed Hindutva’s point that it was a matter of belief, but worse, that secularists collaborated with the basic assumptions of Hindutva using the criteria that facts involved devaluation, indeed suppression, of local beliefs and myths in favour of homogenized worldviews that the state normally propagated.
In a stimulating article where the animus against secular historians outweighs objections against Hindutva, Ashis Nandy claims that the former seek to colonise conceptions of the past by trying to know it in its comprehensive factuality (as opposed to myth which only remembers the moral stories about the past) and suggests a complicity with Hindutva ideologues who, according to him, only object to secular history for not being ‘adequately scientific’.1
Unfortunately Nandy’s understanding of Hindutva’s history bears the marks of casual polemic. It seems to me that this is not just a problem with the essay, but with the nature of the debate itself which has been framed around the evils of secularism or history (most often both) and the virtues of myth and memory, and vice versa. The consequence of the intense exchanges between anti-communalists is that Hindutva’s history tends to simply provide the occasion for the debate and is itself left largely unspecified. A part of the problem is that Hindutva ideologues have only now begun to specify their principles of history, faced as they are with public condemnation of their suppression of school textbooks and volumes of the ICHR project on the nationalist movement entitled ‘Towards Freedom’.
One such cogent definition of Hindutva history has come from K.R. Malkani, a leading Hindutva ideologue, who advocates a synthetic principle. Replying to the charge that the HRD ministry is promoting myths in the name of history, Malkani declares, ‘The fact is that there is often more history in myths and more myth in history.’2 The interpenetrating notion of myth and history requires a new term to indicate its novel particularity. The one I will use here is ‘mhy-story’.
A form of knowledge which combines such disparate methods can possess few internal principles of its own that would give it coherence. Indeed, its principles are derived from an external and transcendental source which is that of nationalism. Malkani states in his triumphalist conclusion that a ‘good history’ is one that can produce a ‘healthy nation’, while critical historians are guilty of ‘self-abuse’. The past is simply a resource to build a positive (the opposite of self-abuse) self-image for Hindus. This involves two elements. The first is that the hypothetical nature of historical evidence is replaced by assertions. In his definitive work on Hindu nationalism, Golwalkar says clearly that the ‘tentative value’ of hypotheses regarding the Aryan invasion theory must be rejected by the certitude that ‘we Hindus came into the land from nowhere, but are indigenous children of the soil… from time immemorial.’3
The second and complementary element is that of willed forgetting. Any detail that disturbs the positive self-image of Hindus must be jettisoned. Malkani concedes that some people may have eaten beef in ancient India and low castes always have, but asserts that its mention in textbooks is an act of ‘ridiculing Indian regard for the cow.’
In its mixture of fact and fiction with the latter as the dominant genre (which, as Malkani’s example about beef indicates, the need for certitudes would logically require), in the subordination of the past to the authority of present beliefs and the modern idea of conscious forgetting that myth-making needs in order to repress the variety and often contradictory welter of details, Hindutva is clearly intimate with the structures of myth. Except for the presence of two important elements.
The first is that it does not subscribe to the culture of myths. Myths require a culture which allows them to offer different meanings to separate communities, a capacious narrative structure that permits key narrative points and motifs to be changed and reorientations made. It is to such a culture that the Ramayan belongs by virtue of the diverse versions it has spawned (as shown in Paula Richman’s book Many Ramayans). Hindutva’s intolerance for this culture has been firmly demonstrated by their storming of the Sahmat exhibition ‘Hum Sab Ayodhya’ and of M.F. Husain’s pictorial interpretation of Saraswati. The other feature that militates against Hindutva’s commitment to myth is its valorisation of facts.
Hindutva’s attachment to facticity is apparent in Malkani’s rhetoric and in its animosity to the work of secular historians; also in attempts such as the one recently made that used computer simulation technology to virtualise Harappan seals and pass it off as evidence of a continuity between the Indus Valley and Vedic civilizations. The most important among these attempts at conjuring up facts is the Ramjanmabhumi agitation itself, which is to make a belief in the past, i.e. that Ram existed and was born in Ayodhya, materialize into a tangible and actual fact by building a temple at a specific spot.
This enterprise can have sophisticated versions. For instance Golwalkar (notwithstanding his rejection of hypotheses in a later context) cites unnamed Orientalist scholars to say that the Bhagavadgita was composed 1500-2000 years before Buddha who lived in 600 B.C. This means that the Mahabharat was composed 4500-5000 years ago. Since the Bhagavadgita reveals a highly developed and complex civilization which must have taken centuries to evolve (he refers to 2000 years that Christianity has taken to achieve its present level of civilization which is still incomparably lower than that of the ‘superb social structure sung in that immortal song’), it follows that Hindus have been in ‘undisturbed possession’ of this land for 8000-10,000 years.4
Golwalkar bombards the reader with a wide range of methods with diverse assumptions – the equation of the normative with the actual in the way he looks at the Gita, the cross references to scholars, the comparisons with other civilizations – all of which are in turn used to make a step by step deduction of dates that finally snowballs into a grand and fantastic assertion. The deductive process has no internal coherence and is not meant to have, for its real purpose is rhetorical, which is to persuade the reader that the hoariness of the past is being actually established.
Admittedly these are fascinating improvisations that reveal how mythic structures can be opportunistically made to draw upon and include apparently verifiable evidence. Nevertheless what is more interesting is the extent of Hindutva’s dependence on facts to produce plausibility for itself and others,5 despite their commitment to ‘sentiment’ and belief. The roots of this may lie in the defensive strategy begun in the 19th century to prove India had an actual and glorious history by interpreting narrative metaphors of the epics and puranas as revealing the ability of Indians to fly, make nuclear weaponry and so on.
But Hindutva’s project has outgrown that discourse. It uses facts to tap the plausibility that is often given by popular common sense to historians: that they tell the stable, actual truth about how things really were in the past. Historical facts are often seen – and this is borne out by numbers of popular histories and textbooks – as being unproblematically equal to reality itself. Clearly, for Hindutva, facts are very important for it reinforces the belief that the past was actually glorious and that Hindus today have a continuous connection with it. There is also another, connected reason for stressing the importance of historical facts and that has to do with the desire for actualizing it in the present. I will deal with this in the next section.
The case of mhystory suggests that mythic structures, once isolated and homogenized, are more amenable to instrumentalisation because they are signs of belief and can therefore be controlled by it. They also possess a flexibility that can confidently mobilise historical details and the assumptions of actuality they carry with them. This flexibility is crucial for Hindutva for it is engaged in a larger project of producing a Hindu national identity that needs to deploy the past in the present.
Hindutva’s project can be fruitfully understood by situating it against the insights of Charles Taylor who, in a pathbreaking article, defined the politics of identity as based on the need for recognition. A community, like a person, needs to be recognized as possessing merit and value by those outside it. Denial of this recognition, inferiorisation of the community by others damages and may even distort its self.6
It is not my purpose here to recount the rich line of Taylor’s argument, but I wish to use this fundamental insight of Taylor to define the utterly contrary project of Hindutva. Taylor’s model valorizes the others’ recognition and seeks to redress inequities in the relationship between the self and the other. Hindutva, on the other hand, is committed to the project of self-recognition. It is interested in how Hindus regard themselves rather than how they are looked at by others. Together with this is a privileging of the self in relationship to others. Following from this it is interested in producing unequal relationships with others rather than removing them.
For Hindutva the self is the Hindu nation. There are no divisions or contradictions in this self nor is there any space in it for the idea of the individual or interior self. The reiterations of ‘common’ in the following citation from Golwalkar where he defines the Hindu nation in terms of race is an index of the impossibly compact degree of homogenization that it demands: ‘Living in this country since prehistoric times is the ancient Race – the Hindu Race, united together by common traditions, by memories of common glory and disaster, by similar historical, political, social, religious and other experiences, living under the same influences, and evolving a common culture…’7 and so on. This is a self that is present in the culture of the country, it does not need to be created or joined together. Instead it needs to be recognized by the bearers of the self, setting in motion a process that will make the country realise its essentially Hindu character.
This process of recognition is referred to as ‘jagaran’ or ‘jagrup’, words that indicate the idea of awakening that is associated with a resumption of potency. Pride is crucial to this awakening, for it is the loss of pride in ones Hinduness as a consequence of Muslim and British invasions, especially colonial indoctrination (resulting in secularism of course!) that has obscured the self from the recognition that they possess the land. Golwalkar declares that Hindus must realize that they are the ‘indigenous children of the soil [and hence] natural masters of the country’.8 The process of self-recognition for Hindutva involves a sense of mastery over the space of the country itself.
As may be inferred, Hindutva’s self-recognition is not a gentle process of spreading beliefs. It involves a political project which seeks to mobilize cultural resources to produce this recognition for every Hindu. What this means primarily is that the space of the country is filled with signs of Hindutva. Visual signs that accompany everyday objects and can therefore smuggle themselves into everyday practices (such as driving vehicles with stickers of ‘om’ for others to follow on the road), media technologies that are stamped by Hindu associations (cassettes, videos), textual material (textbooks) and so on are meant to produce a sense that the Hindu nation lives in everyday life.
It is here that historical references become important. They offer a sense of timeless continuity in the everyday life of the Hindu nation. The Hindu self is not to know of changes and differences with what it may have been. Hindutva demands that not only will there be a self-awareness of commonality across the diversity of spaces that make up the country, but also with the past. Monumental signs of the past such as Ramjanmabhumi mandir (along with other mandirs that are to be ‘restored’ from Muslim ownership, architectural projects, names of public places and so on), ritual occasions such as Ram kathas, jagaran sessions where ancient texts are rekindled are meant to enter into a network of cross-references with the carefully selected details of history textbooks that reiteratively signal the glory of ancient India and the pride of belonging to it.
Equally, by actually bringing the past into the present (by building temples, cleansing secularist influences in textbooks), there is a deeper pride in the agency of the present for being able to reanimate the past in the present. The present with its projects and efforts controls the past and makes it a part of itself. It is this sense of power over the past that was articulated by Naipaul in a 1993 interview where, referring to the demolition of the Babri Masjid, he declared, ‘Today it seems to me that Indians are becoming alive to their history. This has not happened in the past.’9 It is interesting to note in this connection that Golwalkar does not envy the golden age for, he says, in affluence life is routine, whereas it is only ‘adverse circumstances’ (which is clearly the present) that provide an ‘opportunity to put forth the best in us.’10 The ancient past, however golden, is passive; it is the present that is active and the real source of glory.
The conjuration of the ancient Hindu past is not simply meant to provide a ‘feel-good’ impulse. Hindutva demands that the signs of Hindu self-recognition must replace those of other religions, belief systems and cultures that see themselves as possessing equal claim to putting their imprint on the everyday life of the nation. The perniciousness and violence of this project may be understood if we contrast it with the renaming of streets, monuments and so on after the departure of the British. In this instance there were no residents who could be related to the erased signs.
For Hindutva, on the other hand, it is the signs of the living who can lay claim to be equally a part of the nation, that are sought to be erased or subordinated. The lives of others such as Muslim, Christians, secularists, socialists and so on are sought to be controlled through the signs of their difference. Thus the Ramjanmabhumi issue was the trigger for a larger attempt at the subordination of Muslims through the demolition of the Babri Masjid. This is an enterprise that necessarily involves their physical subordination, indeed the conversion of living people into signs and objects that can be burnt, raped, stabbed and erased by bureaucratic fiats (such as the ones that have recently removed refugee camps in Gujarat).
Mhystory is crucial to this project for it collaborates in motivating and justifying it. Hindutva’s narrative of the past revolves around two basic elements: the glory of ancient India and the humiliation and oppression of Hindus in the medieval and colonial periods. The project for self-recognition draws on both. By reanimating the past a continuity is established with ancient glories, while the very process of establishing the visible and tangible supremacy of Hindu signs over the land undoes the humiliation of the later periods. The present not only resurrects history, it also sheds its burdens. In other words, by bringing the past into a synchronous relationship with the present, Hindutva manages to allegorise the present in terms of the past. Each Muslim/Christian/secularist/leftist/anti-Hindutva is a sign of the unnatural period of humiliation and each act of their subordination represents a step towards reanimating the connection with the primordial ancientness of the Hindu past and through it, to arrive at the belief that they are the nation while others may at best be a part of it. This means that the nation no longer comprises of equal citizens. It has (superior) Hindus and (subordinate) others. Mhystory justifies a normative reconceptualisation of the nation in terms of internal distinctions and hierarchies.
There is no doubt that mhystory poses a challenge – separately and jointly – to believers and practitioners of both myth and history. Being a historian I cannot presume to discuss the ways in which myth can be disentangled from its complicities with Hindutva. Nor can I elaborate here on what may be done to snap history’s ties to mhystory. Nevertheless I would like to dwell on the need to rethink an important historical attitude.
This concerns the relationship of history with the production of contemporary identity. It is a well established truth that the self requires a past for its recognition – both to tell itself and others. Historians in our country have provided recognition to a fledgling nation by dwelling on the history of nationalism. Historical research, working with secularist, multi-culturalist, politicized assumptions, may have complicated the notion of a homogeneous nation, but the nation nevertheless remained the reference point and touchstone of historical research.11 In this deep sense history has always been a handmaiden of present needs in our country. And it is precisely this assumption that Hindutva has worked upon and made more attractively radical by seeking to install the past as a tangible part of the present.
In its stead, it seems to me, there is a need to orient historical practice by the idea that the past is radically different. The historian needs to research her material with the excitement of journeying into another country without a return ticket to the point of departure. This attitude is crucial if the present is not to become a point of authoritarian control. For the dice is always loaded in favour of the present: the point of departure into history (the historian and her material) and its return (the manuscript) cannot but be located in the present. The latter constantly informs the horizons of the past. But the horizon must remain as it is, a distant prospect and not become a travel chart, far less a route.
If present needs demand that the past be oriented by it, then what we will (and already) have is a control centric history, the problems of which are only too harshly visible in mhy-story. On the other hand, the imagining of historical research as a journey can make the past confront the present with new possibilities and insights and make it aware of its limits. It may even generate fresh envisionings of the future. For instance, it may even make us more conscious of the boundaries of our identities and sensitise us to the compulsions of others who make theirs. Most of all the past needs to make the present unfamiliar to itself. History must acquire the power to surprise the present with its differences.
1. Ashis Nandy, ‘History’s Forgotten Doubles’, History and Theory, No. 34, 1995. See also my criticisms of Veena Das in Carving Blocs: Communal Ideology in Twentieth Century Bengal, Delhi, 1999.
2. K.R. Malkani, ‘History and Nationalism’, The Statesman, 23 December 2001.
3. M.S. Golwalkar, We or our Nationhood Defined, Nagpur, 1945; first published 1939, p. 12.
4. Ibid, p. 10.
5. See for instance Koenrad Elst’s painstaking criticism of the factual basis of the JNU booklet in his Ram Janmabhoomi vs Babri Masjid: a case study in Hindu Muslim conflict, New Delhi, 1990.
6. Charles Taylor, ‘The Politics of Recognition’, in Amy Gutman (ed.), Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition, New Jersey, 1994.
7. op cit., Golwalkar, p. 45.
8. Ibid, p. 16.
9. V.S.Naipaul interviewed by Dileep Padgaonkar, Times of India, 18 July 1993.
10. Prologue, Golwalkar, op cit.
11. See Sumit Sarkar’s observations in Beyond Nationalist Frames, New Delhi, 2002 on this subject. I have greatly benefited from his more elaborate talk on the same subject entitled ‘Rethinking Modern Indian history: the limits of nationalist frames’, delivered at the India International Centre, New Delhi, February 2002.