History Writing to the Rescue against Sectarian Nationalism

Ram Puniyani
February 13, 2021

India currently is in the grip of ‘constructed Hate’. This in turn has led to violence against vulnerable sections of society, particularly religious minorities and dalits. As such one understands that love is a natural phenomenon and Hatred is generally a phenomenon constructed around misconceptions about the targeted sections of society. These targeted sections of society have to bear the brunt of the violence. The major source of misconceptions is the interpretation of history, which nationalism in the name of religion interprets in a way to suit is political agenda.

Currently all three major periods of Indian History, ancient, medieval and modern are presented in a distorted fashion in the discourse which is dominating the social scene. On the top of that the historians who have tried to interpret history in rational, scientific way are looked down and defamed by the dominant political narrative. As pointed out by Eric Hobswam ‘History is to nationalism: what poppy is to the opium addict’. We can clearly see the vast divergence in interpretation of the past in Indian nationalists on one hand and communal nationalists on the other. Many historians have taken it upon themselves to stand to oppose the communal distortions of history to preserve the inclusive interpretation of our past even at the cost of facing death threats for their understanding, which goes against the grain of propaganda by the communal forces.

Professor D.N.Jha the former Professor and Head of History Department of Delhi University is one such eminent person who not only had to face the death threats but also had to go against the communal stream, which dominates the stream. Prof Jha’s death (4 February 2021) is a great loss not only to the world of professional historians but also to movement which is trying to uphold the plural, inclusive nature of our country. He was a one of the great anchor for the ideology of the movement for democratic, plural India. This ideology aims to preserve the diversity and affirmative action for religious minorities by providing the deeper understanding of ancient and medieval history through his immaculate, scholarly work. The issues he touched are the ones’ which have been rattling the society and aimed at targeting and tormenting the religious minorities in particular.

When his book ‘Myth of Holy Cow’ was published he started getting regular phone calls threatening him with dire consequences. The narrative of Holy Cow was being deliberately brought to the fore as with this issue Muslims could be scared and thrown in to the margins. We did see as to how this narrative around Holiness of cow later went on to assume the form of lynching’s in which primarily Muslims lost their lives and also dalits had to face the wrath of the communal forces, like the incident of Una where four dalits were mercilessly flogged for skinning a dead cow.

Jha’s work, based on deeper study of scriptures, showed that beef was part of the food habit in early India, Vedic and Post Vedic both. His sources were primary and wide prevalence of beef as a part of cuisine was meticulously demonstrated. At another level what he researched was ratified by the likes of Ambedkar, who had mentioned this fact earlier in his book, ‘Who were the Shudras’. Also Swami Vivekananda had pointed to the similar observation, Swamiji points out, “You will be astonished if I tell you that, according to old ceremonials, he is not a good Hindu who does not eat beef. On certain occasions, he must sacrifice a bull and eat it.”

[Vivekananda speaking at the Shakespeare Club, Pasadena, California, USA (2 February 1900) on the theme of ‘Buddhistic India’, cited in Swami Vivekananda, The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Vol 3 (Calcutta: Advaita Ashram, 1997), p. 536.]

Jha’s scholarly work gave a great strength to the movement which upheld the diversity of food practices in India. As such communal forces are not serious about welfare of cow became obvious when the news of Hundreds of cows dying in a Cow Shed (Gaushala) due to hunger and diseases in Hingonia in Rajasthan came to the public knowledge. An interesting anecdote is mentioned in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s biography by Vijay Trivedi (Har Nahi Manunga) where Vajpeyee while consuming beef in US humorously points out that any way the beef he is relishing is that of an American Cow!

Now Ram Temple has been inaugurated by the Prime Minster and aggressive and intimidating fund collection for Ram Temple are going on, one recalls the Reports of Historians on Ram Temple issue. He was part of the report writing team, ‘Ram Janm Bhumi-Babri Masjid: A Historians report the nation’. This report in a clear-cut manner demonstrated that neither was there a proof of Temple being destroyed to build the mosque, nor was there a definitive proof of Lord Ram being born there. Though Supreme Court rejected the report as a mere opinion but it did conclude on similar lines. It is another matter that it allotted all the land to those who were part of demolition, which was recognized as a crime by the Apex Court.

The attempt is made to attribute the destruction of Nalanada to Bakhtiyar Khilji. The communal historiography has harped on this myth to the extent of its becoming a part of social understanding. The aim as usual is to link the acts of Muslims Kings to today’s Muslims. While Khilji might have wrought destruction in different places, the much revered Nalanda’s destruction has more to do with the Brahmanical reaction to rise of Buddhism. Citing diverse sources he observes that “actual scuffle between the Buddhist and Brahminical mendicants and the latter, being infuriated, propitiated the Sun God for twelve years, performed a fire-sacrifice and threw the living embers and ashes from the sacrificial pit into the Buddhist temples which eventually destroyed the great library at Nalanda called Ratnodadhi”. (‘History of Indian Logic’, as cited by D.R. Patil, The Antiquarian Remains in Bihar, page 327). The diverting of attention to Khilji is a mechanism to hide under the carpet the scuffle between Buddhism and Brahmanism, which has been the central fulcrum around which Indian past has revolved.

One more shameful incident which happened in recent years was the attack on girls in a pub in Mangalore. This was done by Sri Ram Sene, led by the ex-RSS pracharak Pramod Mutalik. The attack was on the ground that drinking by women is against Indian traditions. Not only did he co-write an article to burst this myth he went on to contribute the book, Drink of Immortality (2020). This work explores the distillation of Alcohol of different varieties in ancient India and its consumption by men and women. Also pointing out that Vedas, Ramayana and Mahabharata also mention the consumption of alcohol.

Jha belonged to the stream of academics that actively engaged and contributed to struggles for better society, a society with respect for diversity and pluralism, a society upholding the rights of oppressed and marginalized, including the religious minorities. Humble tributes to a great historian!

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Ram Puniyani
February 20,2021

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India began as a plural democracy; respect for diversity was the core value. The provisions of safeguards for minorities were in built. These safeguards were formulated by the Constituent Assembly’s committee on Minorities headed by Sardar Patel. Seven decades down the lines where do we stand in matters of security and economic welfare of the religious minorities. Most of the inquiry commission reports related to communal violence, the scholarly works on communal violence by the likes of Paul Brass, Asghar Ali Engineer and recently from Yale University give a very painful picture of the communal violence, showing that the Muslims minorities in particular and lately Christian Minorities have suffered adversely. Sachar Committee Report (2006) showed the economic marginalization of Muslim minorities.

The events of last few decades and more so of last six years show the rising intimidation, marginalization and increasing fear among this community. The lynchings in the name of cow-beef and the harassment around love jihad have brought to fore the type of problems our country is facing on the scale of democratic freedoms. This was most clearly demonstrated when the large section of media with full support of the ruling dispensation coined the terms  like ‘Corona bomb’ and ‘Corona Jihad’ in the wake  of rise of Covid. To add salt to the wound, the present Government initiated NRC in Assam on the grounds that over 50 Lakh Bangladeshi’s have infiltrated into India particularly in Assam. When the final count came only 19 odd lakh people were found without proper citizenship papers out of which 12.5 Lakhs were Hindus!

Undeterred by this the ruling Government brought in Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in which the persecuted communities in neighboring countries are entitled for citizenship barring the Muslims. The trap was clear that those people who were without papers and were Hindus will get the citizenship through the back door while millions of Muslims without proper papers will be disenfranchised from citizenship to be shunted to detention centers.

It was in this background that our ex-Vice President Hamdi Ansari wrote his memoirs “By a Many Happy Accident: Recollections of a Life”. In discussions and interviews by different channels around the release of the book he voiced some of the concerns. He tried to emphasize that our citizenship is not based on religion. As most of the comments on his book and also on his life revolved around his being a Muslim, he underlined the fact that in his diplomatic and political life Muslim ness did not matter, what mattered was professional competence. As such this sums up his career which spanned over four decades and served the country in a very honorable way.

That apart the communal elements constantly targeted him for his being Muslim. In one of the republic day parade (2015), when army saluted as Jan Gan Man, national anthem was sung. A picture was circulated to create misconception that Ansari did not salute when the anthem was being sung. In this picture President is seen saluting along with him Prime Minster Narendra Modi and defense Minster are also saluting. Ansari stands still and picture highlights his not saluting. The criticism of his not saluting tricolor was propagated. At such an occasion only President, who is Commander-in-Chief of army salutes. No one is supposed to salute at that time. What Ansari did was as per the protocol, while those who saluted with President did not follow the guidelines laid down!

When Ansari retired in his farewell speech the Prime Minster took a dig. “. “A big part of your working life was in West Asia... in the same atmosphere and debate... after retirement, it was minority’s commission or AMU... that was your circumference,”

In the response to release of his book the communal forces again are uttering that India gave you so many top positions and your are disgruntled! You can very well leave the country and stay in the one where you feel at home. These types of comments show the mindset of the sectarian nationalists who see the citizens only in their religion’s identity. Ansari is not talking of his personal unhappiness. Being a thorough democrat and Indian nationalist, he is trying to draw our attention to declining ethos of our country. Since the identity issues, the emotive issues like Ram Temple, Cow-beef, Ghar Wapasi and Love jihad have taken the front stage our democratic foundations are being eroded to no end.

Similarly he points that with current Government the word secularism has gone into eclipse, it has disappeared from Governments dictionary. One can argue that even earlier the practice of secularism was on a weak wicket, e.g. the responses to Shah Bano Judgment did go contra to the values of secularism. Numerous reasons can be attributed to the weakness in practice of secularism. Still at most levels it had honorable place. What was missing was the astute sense of implementing it in the complex scenario where intense propaganda against protective clauses for minorities was projected as ‘minority appeasement’. Now there is not even an iota of consideration that as a secular state Prime Minster should not inaugurate a religious place of worship or issues like violence in the name Cow-Beef should not enjoy impunity. There is not even smallest consideration that in CAA how we can bar granting of citizenship to people of particular religion.

Ansari points out, “Overall, the very fact that Indian-ness of any citizen being questioned is a disturbing thought,’ and “enhanced apprehensions of insecurity amongst segments of our citizen body, particularly Dalits, Muslims and Christians” and the “illiberal form of nationalism that promotes intolerance”.

The critics of pluralism and diversity assert that what is prevailing is the genuine secularism as it has balanced the earlier tilt towards minorities. They also try to equate few other killings as lynching’s, to show that there no insecurity for dalits and minorities as such. Ansari’s observations need to be taken seriously and course correction of our democracy needs to be undertaken.

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