Right now, Sir Keir Starmer is a highly significant individual. He’s the leader of the opposition in the UK. He’s the leader of the country’s Labour Party. And importantly, he has a very high likelihood of becoming Britain’s prime minister in less than a year.
Outside the formal academia there remained a vast number of Indians who held the ancient texts to be sacrosanct and whatever was mentioned there as fully historical. In fact the criticism of the British and the Westernized Indians only made them more determined to uphold their views. They fully believed that Vedic-Puranic India was an enchanting land of noble spiritualism, grandeur and social harmony.
They wanted to place this mythical age in the most remote antiquity possible. Lokmanya Tilak claimed that the Rig Veda was composed in 6000 BC or even earlier.
Traditional pundits like Haridas Siddhantabagish calculated, mostly on astronomical grounds, that the Bharata War took place in 3102 BC. Antiquarians like Ganganath Jha and D S Triveda went a step further and said that the Vedic Aryans were original inhabitants of this land.
Their chief logic was that Rig Veda does not preserve the memory of a foreign homeland of the Aryans. Possibly by claiming the Aryans to be Indians they wanted to place their countrymen on an equal footing with their European masters.
Tagore ridiculed this Aryan obsession in his poems. This set off a reaction in South India where some scholars claimed that there was a Dravida age in Indian history, older and more glorious than the Aryan one.
Supposed evidences of this era were found in the descriptions of the powerful Asuras and Rakshasas in Vedic tales and that of Swarna or golden Lanka of Ravana in Ramayana. Such tendency of historicizing originally ahistorical literature increased with the founding of the Arya Samaj and later the Hindu Mahasabha and the Urdu Nagri controversy.
The situation got further complicated after India’s Independence. The Nehruvian government wanted to teach the countrymen history that would inculcate secular and socially progressive values. In this scenario, the left-liberal group of historians got official patronage.
In 1961 the NCERT was established to promote high standard school education. The history text books commissioned by it were to offer secular and rational explanations of the past instead of unnecessary glorification of the bygone age. As a part of this enterprise, Romila Thapar’s Ancient India was published (1966). More texts in the same vein by RS Sharma, Satish Chandra, Bipan Chandra and Arjun Dev followed.
These authors said that the ancient age in India was certainly important but it had its own shortcomings. Besides, on archaeological grounds, they completely rejected the claims of hoary antiquity and historicity for the events described in the epics and the Puranas.
The social structure of the Gupta Empire, the supposed golden age of ancient India, was also criticized. Naturally, this ruffled the feathers of the conservative Hindutva elements. However, they did not enjoy administrative power and could not influence academic policy.
The scene changed to some extent in 1977 when Congress was ousted from power for the first time.
The new Janata government included significant conservative Hindutva elements. Soon the Central government announced its displeasure with the above mentioned text books which were ‘not sufficiently appreciative of the unique tenor of Hindu civilization.’ This charge of failure to appreciate the age old indigenous heritage while blindly following the dictates of TB Macaulay and Marxism would be repeatedly leveled against the Left-liberal scholars as the orthodox forces gained political ascendancy.
However, this complaint deserves careful scrutiny. In the meanwhile, many antiquarians, pamphleteers and amateurs combined to uphold the historicity of the epics and the unquestioned glory of the era of Vikramaditya i.e. the Gupta age.
Under P N Oak and S P Gupta these ‘fringe’ practitioners of history and archaeology organized themselves in an Institute for Rewriting History in the 1970s. The surprising point to note was the popular support enjoyed by this alternative view of history, especially in Northern and Western India. One is startled to see the fervour with which Hindu Nababarsha or the first day of the Vikrama Samvat, an era supposedly founded by the classical Hindu hero Vikramaditya in 57 BC, is celebrated by Northern and Western Indian communities, even in Kolkata.
The Bengalis are not to be left behind. With equal enthusiasm a group of Bengalis recently celebrated the anniversary of the foundation of the Bangabda or the Bengali era on first day of the Baisakh month by Sasanka, the first important king of Bengal. But this claim of Sasanka’s founding of the Bengali era is not supported by any reliable literary or archaeological evidence. This is a classic case of ‘invented traditions’.
Emboldened by this public approval, the more conservative central and state governments, from the 1990s, have repeatedly sought to control the contents of NCERT textbooks. They were bolstered by the new generation of NRIs, mostly corporate techies, especially of the USA and the UK, who were becoming increasingly influential since the dawn of the current millennium. In alien lands, they try to foster a monolithic Indian-Hindu identity.
They love to think of the ancient India portrayed in the Amar Chitra Katha comic book series and the Ramayana and the Mahabharata TV serials aired on Doordarshan, which sought to perpetuate the myth of a fantastic colourful past, as the real one.
They practice some selected customs and rituals, largely regressive, and proclaim them to be the essence of true Hinduism. Their sentiments are aptly summed up in the scene of Rani Mukherjee singing Om Jaya Jagdisha Hare in the blockbluster movie Kuchh Kuchh Hota Hai. (1998) Thus we face a testing situation where several competing narratives of history are before us. While making our choice, it would not be irrelevant to remember another anecdote from Dr RC Majumdar’s life.
He was the Chief Editor of the multi-volume History and Culture of the Indian People published by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. The founder of the Bhavan, the noted social figure KM Munshi, reportedly requested Dr Majumdar to record in the first volume of the series that the Vedic Aryans were original residents of India.
Dr Majumdar flatly refused as most of the internationally accepted evidence pointed to the arrival of the Aryans in India from outside and the Harappan civilization being older and fundamentally different from the Vedic one. Ultimately Majumdar’s view was included in the volume.
He believed in the glory of ancient India but for him his faith in ‘the truth and truth alone’ was even more important.
(The writer is Assistant Professor in History, Vidyasagar College for Women, Kolkata and a former Faculty member, Presidency University)