Pioneer 4th December 2001
Anybody with a nodding acquaintance with the ideas of His Holiness Karl Marx (peace be upon him) would know that he analyzed Europe’s declining feudalism and rising mercantilism and propounded the theory that economic forces have independent power to change societies, and that the politics of individual rulers play only a superficial role in making history. Marx’s ideas were Euro-centric, driven by his interest in the depraved status of the English industrial working class, yet have merit as an appraisal of a critical phase in European history. Notwithstanding the strenuous exertions of Marxists, however, they are not the Revealed Word (sruti) and are not valid at all times for all places.
Discerning readers following the hysterical diatribes of Leftist academics against NCERT’s decision to delete objectionable material from textbooks and commission new ones, will be struck by the paradox that Indian Marxist are heavily dependent on political muscle to disseminate their views. They have an amusing lack of faith in the power of the economic process, divorced from ideological control, to determine the contours of history.
That is why the civilizational proclivities of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party are being lambasted for sponsoring the move to update the inelegantly written, voluminous textbooks with which students have been punished for nearly four decades. As the mother of a school-going child, I may mention that the impugned books are unreadable. While it is premature to comment on the quality of the new books, I am relieved that the current drivel is finding its way to the dustbin of history.
The truth behind the escalating decibel-value of the textbook controversy is that the comrades are aware that unlike Europe, the turning points in Indian history have not come from economic developments which acquired their own momentum and shaped the emerging polity. Marxists recognize the deeper truth that history is essentially the story of civilizational memory, accomplishments, and continuity.
Mother India, despite the successive oppressions of three millennarian traditions, has retained her civilizational memory with impressive tenacity in the deep recesses of her soul. This has imparted an inspiring resilience and continuity to the nation’s foundational ethos, enabling it to withstand the trauma of the Islamic invasions, the subtler undermining by Christian colonialism, and the crude assault by the people of the red book. India’s unique cultural heritage has been demonized, marginalized, even declared non-existent. But like the mysterious Saraswati that birthed the Vedic tradition, she has maintained a subterranean presence, permeating the Hindu psyche with a soul-stirring narrative of her own.
Marxists fear that with the ouster of their distorted accounts, the suppressed history of India may come centrestage. This does not mean, as Sumit Sarkar viciously suggests, that history will become “a collection of moral fables” or that the scientific explanation for eclipses may be banned for hurting the belief that they are caused by Rahu (The Times of India, 2 December 2001). Were he better educated, Sarkar would know that few ancient civilizations rivalled India’s knowledge of astronomy. Unlike his European mentors, the Vedic people always knew that the earth moved around the sun.
Long nurtured on state sponsorship provided by the Congress and United Front-type coalitions, Marxists are finding it difficult to adjust to the loss of totalitarian control over the country’s thought processes. Notwithstanding their still formidable domination of academic institutions and funding agencies, they have no control over independent scholarship in India or abroad. Of course, they have tried to overcome this inconvenience by Soviet-style purging of Indian and western scholarship from graduate and post-graduate history courses, which are the real levels at which students should be exposed to conflicting viewpoints and research findings so that they can arrive at independent conclusions.
Despite grandiose declarations about free debate and scientific rigour, the Marxist view of history can survive only when presented as revealed truth, like the Koran and Hadith in madrasas. A look at the critique of “eminent historian” R.S. Sharma’s work, Indian Feudalism, by Andre Wink, Professor of History, University of Wisconsin, Madison, would substantiate this argument.
In Al-Hind: The Making of the Indo-Islamic World (Vol. I), Wink castigates Sharma for misguiding historians to look for Indian parallels to European feudalism. Sharma contends that the “absence of finds of gold coins” in the seventh to tenth centuries proves that the Indian economy was exclusively rural with trade and urbanism having suffered a distinct decline. Rubbishing this claim, Wink points out that the “texts refer to the abundant use of coined money and land charters speak of taxes in gold and there remains evidence of commercial activity on the coasts.” He also ridicules Sharma’s assertion that land grants to Brahmins amount to political feudalism.
Wink concludes that Sharma’s thesis “involves an obstinate attempt to find ‘elements’ which fit a preconceived picture of what should have happened in India because it happened in Europe (or is alleged to have happened in Europe by Sharma and his school of historians whose knowledge of European history is rudimentary and completely outdated)… The methodological underpinnings of Sharma’s work are in fact so thin that one wonders why, for so long, Sharma’s colleagues have called his work ‘pioneering.’”
If Andre Wink, who is no saffron scholar, holds this opinion about the man handpicked by then Education Minister Nurul Hasan to head to Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) and fund the now-challenged genre of historiography, one is within one’s right to question the accuracy and integrity of other works as well. In the context of the textbook controversy, the assertion that twenty-three Jain Tirthankaras are fictional is worthy of contempt. Wink also scorns the work of D. Desai and G.C. Choudhary, as also K.A. Nizami, who has glorified the Turkish conquest of northern India for ending the alleged isolation that encompassed India from the eighth century.
The discerning reader would be savvy enough to realize that the objective of Leftist scholarship is to prove, despite all available evidence, that the Islamic invasion was really India’s age of enlightenment. Hence the denigration of the Vedic Age and the stubborn insistence that the Aryans were not indigenous people. This is why Bipin Chandra protests if medieval Muslim rulers are described as “foreign” (Hindustan Times, 2 December 2001). Objecting to the “artificial glorification of all and sundry who fought against Sultanate and Mughal rulers,” he derides glorification of ancient India as “undue national pride has its own negative aspects.”
Chandra must not be allowed to get away with his innuendoes. He must explain how the invasions of Turks, Central Asians, Mongols, Afghans et al can be considered non-foreign? He must also explicitly state if he thinks that Prithviraj Chauhan, Rana Pratap and Chatrapati Shivaji were traitors for resisting the Islamic invaders. Above all, he must elucidate the “negative aspects” produced by national pride.
Finally, our secular politicians have called textbook revision “talibanisation” of education, while a historian claims that the Prime Minister has no right to issue a fatwa that one-sided history must be changed. I am baffled that all the abuse is in Arabic. Perhaps there are no terms of engagement in Indian languages for a contest that is essentially non-Indian in perspective. But I do wonder if the comrades are aware that Osama bin Laden and his Taliban are heroes to Muslims everywhere, and that ‘talibanisation’ cannot logically be the chosen abuse for Islam’s perceived adversaries?
© Sandhya Jain