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Communal Interpretation of history

Friday, October 23, 1998
SECTION: Opinion

Communal interpretation of history

By Asghar Ali Engineer

A RECENT press report said the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh had set up a
body to ``correct history''. The news item, quoting the RSS veteran, Mr.
Moropant Pingale, said ``The Babasaheb Apte Smarak Samiti, an outfit of the RSS,
plans to bring out a district-wise gazetteer under their Akhil Bhartiya
Ithihas Sankalan Yojna project to `correct' history, which has been distorted by
the British, communists and Muslims''. Mr. Pingale, president of the Samiti,
set up the ABISY (an all-India project to collect historical facts) in 1973.

The project considers the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas
source material as they have been written on the basis of Indian ideology.
Also, according to him, other Vedic literature, ancient historical treatises
like the Rajtarangini and the Kadambari and relevant material from Buddhism,
Jainism and other sects prevailing in India will be considered useful
material. The ABISY aims to rewrite the history of India from the
beginning of creation and says it will be in accordance with the chronology of
Bharatiya KalAgnana of Yugas and based on facts and figures.

The Hindu bias in history writing is obvious in this statement. Even at
the outset, British, communist and Muslim history writing is ruled out and
considered biased. The communists and Muslims, along with the British,
are considered alien who cannot be relied upon. The question is: can modern
history be based on religious scriptures and the chronology based on
them? The scriptures and literary works are a useful source for historians
only for corroboration in addition to historical sources. The scriptures are
composed for spiritual guidance and growth and tend to be symbolic and
allegorical rather than factual in a secular sense. The `yugas' are also based on
notions altogether different from history's serial time. Anyway, this discussion
apart, what is important is that a country's history cannot be based on
the scriptural sources of a religious community. A community's history is a
different proposition. India cannot be equated with any one religious
community. It consists of several religious communities and they
interact with one another. The history so written will have a communal bias as it
will be based on some a priori assumptions.

Much mischief has been done by the communal interpretation of history as
far as the educated middle class is concerned. Initially, the mischief in
history writing was done by the British rulers. When Hindus and Muslims joined
hands in 1857 and mutinied against the British rule, their action resulted in
a political turmoil which almost overthrew the British empire. Then, the
British decided to divide and rule. One of the most effective ways was
to misuse history. Elliot and Dawson, put on this project, selectively
translated the Persian source material which became the main source of
history writing.

When the freedom struggle intensified, communal and divisive tendencies
surfaced partly owing to the British machinations and partly owing to
the struggle for power between the Hindu and Muslim elite. Both the
communities started glorifying the rulers of their own communities and disparaging
those of the other. Thus, the present conflict was thrown back into history.
History was thus doubly communalised - by the British rulers as well as
by the elites of the two communities. It is this legacy which persists even
today and deeply influences our historiography.

As for objectivity in writing history, the less said the better. E. H.
Carr, British historian, describes historians as `cooks'. The same species of
fish cooked by two cooks will taste differently if they use different spices.
Similarly, the same facts, presented by two different historians with
different biases, will lead to two histories. What about objectivity in
history? Is it not possible? No doubt, it is difficult to achieve a
complete scientific objectivity as religious, communal or ideological biases do
influence historians. But still an honest and unbiased historian can try
to be as objective as possible.

In our textbooks, the Muslim rulers are portrayed as villains and the
Hindu rulers who fought against them as heroes. The power struggle is
substituted with the religious struggle. And dynastic rule is substituted with
religious rule. It is never emphasised that the Muslim rulers belonging to
different dynasties fought against one another.

The communal historians presume that human behaviour is predominantly
determined by one's religious beliefs. This is a highly mistaken
assumption. In fact, even in an ordinary human person, his/her behaviour is
determined by complex factors. Personal interests and cultural influences play no less
an important role in human behaviour. More so in the case of rulers who
desperately try to harmonise conflicting interests. A ruler is often
called upon to deal with highly complex situations, balancing various interests
and forces. He may face serious consequences if he takes a decision on the
basis of his religious beliefs alone.

Thus when Babar invaded India, he fought against Ibrahim Lodhi, not any
Hindu ruler in Delhi. He was aided by some Hindu rulers. And when Babar fought
against Rana Sanga, the latter was helped by Daulat Khan, a Pathan
noble. So when Babar is depicted as a foreign invader by communal historians, it
will create in the minds of the readers an impression that he came to India
to destroy Hindu rule but the fact is it is not so. Babar turned towards
India, not out of animosity but because his own brothers and close relatives
snatched power from him in his native place (now in Uzbekistan).

When Babar died and Humayun succeeded him, he faced the greatest
challenge not from any Hindu ruler but from Sher Shah Suri, a Pathan Muslim.
Humayun was defeated and a Hindu ruler gave him refuge. When Akbar's army
invaded Haldighati, it was led by Raja Mansingh and Rana Pratap's army was led
by Hakim Khan Sur, again a Pathan Muslim. Hakim Khan Sur defended
Haldighati bravely until he was killed. Yet the RSS considers Rana Pratap a Hindu
hero which he was not. He had full confidence in Hakim Khan Sur. Hakim Khan
Sur is buried in Haldighati and his urs (death anniversary) is observed by the

Salim, who assumed the title of Jehangir when he ascended the throne,
fought against his own father Akbar and killed Akbar's conspiring confidant
Abul Fazl whom he suspected of conspiring against him. Shah Jahan similarly
revolted against Jehangir as he suspected that Noor Jahan was conspiring to put
her own son on the throne. And Aurangzeb imprisoned his ailing father Shah Jahan
as he appointed Dara Shukoh his heir-apparent. Subsequently, he killed his own
brothers Dara, Murad and Shuja to wrest the throne. But in our history
books what is highlighted is Aurangzeb's struggle against Shivaji, who is
described as the champion of Hindu interests. Neither Aurangzeb was a champion of
Muslim interests nor Shivaji that of Hindu interests.

Shivaji had many Pathan Muslims on his side and Aurangzeb, many Rajputs
on his side. Theirs was essentially a power struggle, not a fight for the
defence of religion. Similarly, Aurangzeb's main confidant was a Rajput ruler of
Jaipur, Mirza Raja Jaisingh, that of Shivaji was his personal secretary, Maulvi
Haider Ali Khan. Shivaji's chief of artillery was also a Pathan Muslim. When
Afzal Khan, a general from Bijapur, came to meet Shivaji, his personal guards
were Shankaraji Mohite and Pillaji Mohite, whereas Shivaji's personal guard
was a Muslim - Siddi Ibrahim. Also, Rustam Zaman of Bijapur was a great friend
of Shivaji and it was because of him that he escaped from Adil Shah. When
Aurangzeb thought of killing Shivaji, it was his wife and Jafar Khan and
Amin Khan who intervened on Shivaji's behalf while a Rajput noble Jaswant
Singh advised Aurangzeb to kill Shivaji.

About the demolition of temples also communal historians betray much
bias. It is true that many temples were demolished by Muslim rulers such as
Aurangzeb but what is not projected is that he also gave landed estates for
several temples and even constructed the Chitrakoot temple and gave an endowment
of 200 acres of land to maintain it. While he demolished the Krishna
Janmabhoomi temple in Mathura, he also gave costly ornaments for the idol of Lord
Krishna in Vrindavan. Aurangzeb also demolished a Jama Masjid in Golkonda.
Similarly, many Hindu rulers demolished Jain and Buddhist temples. King Harsh of
Kashmir pulled down several Hindu temples under the supervision of an officer
called devotpadan nayaka, i.e. an officer in charge of the demolition.

These were acts of rulers motivated by political considerations rather
than by religious beliefs. If history is written objectively and without
communal bias, it will help us assess our past honestly. With a few honourable
exceptions, most rulers - Hindu or Muslim - were motivated by their own
political interests. Let us not glorify some who belong to our religious
tradition and vilify the others who belong to other religious tradition.
Besides being bad history, it will have serious repercussions for our
pluralistic society.

Revised: May 01, 1999.