Dear Politicians, Please Leave History Alone

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Attempts at tweaking history by politicians are by no means a new phenomenon. But what is of comparatively recent origin is the systematic effort to challenge and repudiate long established facts of history to suit a particular narrative without an iota of historical evidence to back it. Given its ideological moorings, it is perhaps only natural that the BJP has been at the forefront of this exercise at rewriting history.

As Human Resources Development minister in the NDA-I government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Murli  Manohar Joshi did his best to ‘correct’ the ‘aberrations’ and ‘inaccuracies’ that had allegedly been shoved into our history books by Left-leaning historians led by the likes of Bipan Chandra, Irfan Habib and Romila Thapar. But what we are witnessing now is straight out of the Theatre of the Absurd. The Vasundhara Raje led Rajasthan government has already initiated a move to make ‘necessary changes’ in school history books to ‘prove’ that Rana Pratap, the great Rajput warrior, actually defeated the mighty army of Akbar the Great in the Battle of Haldighati! As if that was not bad enough, Harishankar Jain, an RSS sympathizer and a lawyer, has filed a case in the Agra court claiming that the Taj Mahal, the pride of India, was actually a Shiva Temple known as ‘Tejo  Mahalaya’. The preposterous claim by the lawyer was based on a 1989 book of dubious merit by revisionist historian PN Oak that claimed The Taj was built by Hindus in 1155, decades before Muslims invaded India! The Central government has mercifully embarked on damage control after the claim invited all-round ridicule. But given its penchant for tinkering with history to bring it in line with its Hindutva narrative, the Sangh parivar can be trusted to come up with more such claims in future.

Down south, the Sangh and historians affiliated to it have launched an elaborate exercise to demonise Tipu Sultan as a villain, who killed, maimed or converted Hindus and raped their women. Union minister Anant Kumar Hegde called the great Mysore warrior a ‘mass rapist’ and a ‘brutal killer’ and followed it up by writing to the Karnataka government asking it to remove his name as a guest at the annual Tipu anniversary celebrations organized by the state government.

Closer home too, there have been systematic efforts to repudiate history as we know it. In its quest for power in Odisha, the BJP first pounced on the Paika Rebellion of 1817 as a tool to whet Odia pride. The Narendra Modi government announced a year-long bicentenary celebration of this great historical event. Efforts to build it up as India’s First War of Independence, replacing the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, have now begun in right earnest despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

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There is no doubt that the Paika Rebellion was an event of great historical significance that spoke volumes about the courage and valour of the peasant-fighter class of Khurda, Ghumusar and other places. It is also true that the forces of the East India Company had to beat a hasty, though temporary, retreat in the face of the ferocity of attacks on them. But there is a mountain of verifiable historical evidence to prove that similar resistance movements took place in neighbouring Bengal, down south and other places in the country around the time or before the Paika Rebellion. The ‘First War of Independence’ tag sought to be thrust on the rebellion is thus more a political project aimed at the vote bank than a rewriting of history based on evidence.

Veteran BJP leader Biswabhshan Harichandan has now set the cat among the pigeons by coming up with the outrageous claim that the Kalinga War, which all of us have grown up knowing as the war that converted Ashok the Great from Chandashok to Dharamashok, never took place! And pray what evidence he has presented to disprove something that has been established centuries ago through historical evidence including the rock edicts of Ashok at Dhauligiri? None at all. All that he has by way of evidence is a series of rhetorical questions like “Who was the King of Kalinga at the time?” – the implication being if there was no king, there is no way there could have been a war.

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Now, it is nobody’s case that history is sacrosanct that cannot be touched. But any change has to be backed by fresh, credible and irrefutable evidence that emerges during research. In any case, such changes can be made only by qualified historians, not politicians with their gaze fixed at the vote bank. It is time the political class left history alone.

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