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  Book Reviews

The Battleground of History, A review of Vinay Lal’s The History of History: Politics and Scholarship in Modern India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2003.


A spate of controversies such as the origin of the Aryan race,  the Ram Janmabhoomi- Babri Masjid dispute, the treatment of Ambedkar by Gandhi as well as the question of reviewing and revising history texts for schools have kept history and historians constantly in the limelight in the Indian media and the public discourse more generally. Vinay Lal’s collection of essays on ‘Politics and Scholarship in India’ offers a stimulating critique of this ‘ascendancy of history’ on the national stage and its social and political ramifications.


According to Lal, the current enthronement of history is a servitude to reigning concerns of modernity whose bitter effects could be seen in the acrimony between militant Hindus and secular historians over writing of history texts and the Ramjanambhoomi issue recently. In contrast to the present preponderance of historical debates, Lal asserts that our ancient culture did not concern itself much with the ‘facts’ of history and hardly produced any historical literature. However, he differs with the Orientalist argument that this ought to be seen as some major lack in our civilization and asserts instead that with such indifference to history, traditional India was actually more inclusive as it devalued the quest for power and identity based on historical certainty or rational ‘knowledge’ in general. Tulsidas’s popular version of the Ramayana, for instance, made no reference to the historical cite of Ayodhya and yet moved millions with its poetry.


Modern intelligentsia, on the other hand, has been party to acrimonious debates over a host of historical issues ranging from the origins of Aryans to religious policies of medieval monarchs to the past of the Babri Masjid etc. Yet, the masses, in our country, according to Lal, are still largely indifferent to the historical veracity of arguments and more at ease in accessing the past through non historical modes such as folktales, epics and myths. And it is this civilisational indifference to history which served as ‘a source of sanity’ and coexistence though it seems threatened now by growing middle class aspirations for histories which insist on being scientific and ‘true’.


But the debates between Hindu nationalists and secular historians over the ‘facts’ of our past are not the only factors which pushed history into the national limelight recently. In the first chapter of this engaging work, the author traces the beginnings of India’s middle class obsession with history to the colonial era. While imperialist historians had vilified or romanticized portions of our retrieved past, the nationalists from Bankim to Savarkar and Nehru saw the construction of our own account of the past as a primary condition for the maturity and fulfillment of the national aspiration.


After independence, the nationalist affair with history continued. And, in his second chapter, Lal discusses in detail the various projects launched for the reconstruction of India’s past immediately after 1947 both by the central and state governments and through private initiative, most famous of which was the overtly ‘nationalist’ twelve volume History and Culture of the Indian People sponsored by the Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan.

In the subsequent period, the development of the Jawahar Lal Nehru University and the emergence of a close knit group of Marxist historians as leading authorities and wielding considerable influence in the central educational structure also came as a major step forward in the creation of the hegemony of history in the public sphere. In more recent times, the emergence of Subaltern Studies (critically charted in chapter 4), as a school of South Asian historiography with an unparalleled international prestige added further weight to the sway of history on the intellectual scene in the country.


Meanwhile, Hindu nationalist historiography also continued to stream through a network of local schools and publications and, lately, over the cyberspace (brilliantly captured in chapter 5 of the book). A clash between these two rival approaches came to the fore ultimately in the form of the Ramjanmbhoomi controversy in the 1980s and 90s. But the secularist engagement with Hindutva through historical ‘facts’ turned out to be miserably inadequate as, according to Lal, historical discourses do not really address the world that most Indians inhabit. It is the resources of popular culture such as myths, folklore and the Gandhian legacy which needed to be tapped to save the pluralist tradition and the Babri Masjid rather than point by point refutation of Hindutva propaganda through a more ‘scientific’ history, Lal insists.


Despite the apparent consistency in the above argument, deeper reflection exposes a number of lapses in its construction. For instance, the author seems to ignore that Gandhi’s fight against communal strife (though without a parallel) also proved unsuccessful ultimately. Lal’s understanding of the glory of Gandhian struggles with reference to just his alleged indifference to history is highly problematic as well. Further, Lal’s attempt to place the burden of the recent failure (?) against Hindutva entirely on the shoulders of secular historians and their factual arguments seems unfair again. Historians, after all, can be expected to best respond to an ideological challenge as per their vocation. If the fight against Hindutva had to be carried along different lines then it is the task of the champions of those different strategies to search for lapses on their front too.


Also, since Lal expresses so much faith in alternative ‘modes of knowledge’ and of ‘living with the past’, the reader is naturally intrigued by the surfeit of ‘facts’, chronology, rational refutation and critique rather than richer offerings from myths, folklore and epics in his own work. Thin references to the Mahabharata, Tulsidas or Birbal do not really make for a convincing case for myths and ‘alternative modes of knowledge’ in place of history. Lal’s own apparently feeble command over Indian folklore and languages also ensures that significant problems remain unaddressed strangely in his own ‘History of History’: problems of Brahminical dominance on traditional ‘knowledge’, for example, and of the implied divide between the historical outlooks of those who “burnt rather than buried their dead” and those who did not, within this cultural mosaic.


Despite these problems, however, Lal’s work is a significant contribution to the required reassessment of our approach to the teaching and construction of History today.