Both renowned authors, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor and historian Vikram Sampath took part in a session at the India Today Conclave 2021 titled, ‘Bulls in our Memory Shop: Debating heritage, history, hubris’.
The two discussed a variety of issues ranging from the history taught in Indian textbooks to the perception of controversial figures such as Savarkar and the appropriation of historical figures for political motives.
Asked what underlines contemporary history-writing, Shashi Tharoor said the BJP’s victory in 2014 brought about a fundamental change in the manner in which we perceive our history.
‘Partition and Macaulay’
“Partition, split of the nationalist movement didn’t happen over ideology or geography. It happened on one key question – is religion the determinant of our nationhood,” Shashi Tharoor said. He added that those who believed that religion was their identity left India and created Pakistan.
Tharoor argues, “Now we have a different ethos in power which argues that India is a fundamentally a Hindu country and everybody else here is either a guest or an interloper and that the institutions and laws of the state must reflect an allegiance to a certain cultural civilisational understanding of India which has nothing to do with the idea of India enshrined in the Constitution.”
Author Vikram Sampath, who recently wrote a second volume of his biography of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, said while we may be politically independent, our minds are “far from de-colonized”.
“Particularly, it finds its manifestation in scholarship, in historiography, where we have been very faithfully been adherents of that infamous Macaulay’s minute of 1835, that the whole role of education is to create a class of interpreters who are only in colour and blood Indian but in our morals, opinion and intellect, we are English,” Sampath said.
Referring to the first brush an Indian has with the history of their country in textbooks, Sampath says it is presented almost in “third person” as if it is the history of some other nation.
“To denigrate your past, to feel a constant sense of apologia, that’s been the bane of historiography because sadly, even at the heights of the British Raj, you had space for nationalist historians – Jadunath Sarkar, Radha Kumund Mukherjee, RC Majumdar, VK Rajwade, Bhandarkar, CV Vaidya,” Vikram Sampath said.
He added, “Sadly, post Independence, the Congress party unwittingly gave away that space of historiography to the stranglehold of Marxist historians and in a discipline like this which thrives on the multiplicity of views, discussion, and debate. It has distorted history and created several fault lines.”
‘Scratching wounds that had already healed?’
“The story of India is a history of invaders, from their perspective (Leftist historians). We’ve not reclaimed that,” Sampath adds.
The historian goes on to say that the history of obscure and bigoted dynasties finds more space in India’s textbooks than empires that thrived below the Vindhyas, such as the Cholas and the rulers of Travancore.
Quoting American historian Will Durant, Sampath says the Islamic invasion of India was the “bloodiest chapter of human history”.
“We labour under this false assumption that talking about the truth will upset contemporary social issues, but dare I say that the edifice of national integrity or social cohesion cannot stand on the shaky and false foundations of whitewashed history,” Vikram Sampath said.
He added, “History worldwide offers these spaces to heal, to relive the past, get over it, make peace with it and move on and they haven’t done that. This is also why we see battles keep happening. What we saw in Ayodhya, we keep seeing all the time, the renaming of cities. These are manifestations of that.”
Agreeing with Sampath that a number of empires do not find mention in Indian history, Shashi Tharoor added that at the time of Independence, India did not choose to be a mirror image of Pakistan.
“In India, history was pressed into the nation-building project. There was a desire to ally over some unpleasant details, the destruction of temples, some of the horrors that happened while stressing on the commonalities that also featured throughout the ages,” Shashi Tharoor said.
Tharoor adds that India is now “scratching the wounds” that have “already healed”.
The invader, Bakhtiar Khilji, destroyed the library at Nalanda, but the station and city standing on the ruins of Nalanda are called Bakhtayarpur, Vikram Sampath said in response.
“Even if you want to have Muslim icons for the community, you have a range of others, from Rahim to Kabir to Sant Shishunal Sharif to APJ Abdul Kalam. Why would you assume that talking about the atrocities of Aurangzeb or Tipu Sultan or Aurangzeb is going to make the Indian Muslims feel very bad about it,” adds Sampath.
Responding to Sampath, Shashi Tharoor says that it is no longer about what a particular ruler did. “When you ask, rightly, why is today’s Muslim feeling offended when Ghazni or Ghori are denounced, the answer is because it is instrumentalised to demonise them today,” Tharoor explains.
‘Many facets to a person like Savarkar’
Talking about Savarkar, Shashi Tharoor said the years of his life after his imprisonment in the Andamans “cast a shadow” over the earlier years of his life when he was hailed as a freedom fighter.
“There are many facets to a person like Savarkar who is a very complicated figure,” Vikram Sampath says. He adds that the British never trusted Savarkar, which is why his five-year jail term was stretched to 13 years.
Referring to the Supreme Court’s inquiry into Savarkar’s alleged role in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, Vikram Sampath said the highest court of the land exonerated him.
“You make someone a persona non grata and don’t even have a discussion on it and then you talk about intolerance. This cancel culture of anyone who does not fall in this mainstream narrative is a traitor, doesn’t belong to the nationhood, that is a very problematic piece,” adds Sampath.
He goes further to say that Bhagat Singh wrote articles eulogizing Savarkar in Matwala, the newspaper he brought out.
“We have a very simplistic, lined, mono-chromatic narrative, a Richard Attenborough film on how India won her freedom,” Vikram Sampath said.
Tharoor says in response that it is not fair to say that all historians in a democracy view history in the same manner. “If the voices say that Muslims were bad 500 years ago and today’s Muslims would have to suffer for it, then I have a problem,” said Shashi Tharoor.
Asked about the central government earmarking August 14 as ‘Partition Horrors Remembrance Day’, Vikram Sampath says, “One of the largest displacements in human history. The world over, when you have holocaust museums, are they celebrating the holocaust or is it a reminder that such excesses must never be repeated again?”
“I have talked about memorialising the atrocities of colonialism not because today you want us to revolt against the British because that’s history, but we must forgive and not forget,” says Shashi Tharoor.
Vikram Sampath adds, “It’s an intellectual crime to subvert the truth to political considerations which happen on both sides. To tell the truth, according to non-ideologically leaning historians, it is the need of the hour.”
Shashi Tharoor adds that college students should not be denied the right to be exposed to a wide variety of views and come together to their own conclusions. “Education is supposed to give you the equipment, intellectually, to discern,” he said.
“Let people read the truth, however inconvenient it may be. I think we have had a very troubled past and since we have not made peace with it, we will keep having these fissures emanating all the time whether it is in Ayodhya or some other place,” says Vikram Sampath.