Erase history from books, but it won’t leave memory
Image used for illustrative purposes only.

By Shiv Visvanathan

Erasing a fragment seems parochial while a Gandhian-style confession would have been more impressive. The regime must learn to experiment with truth rather than tinker with it.

Contemporary newspaper reports, often presented as isolated items, tend to mislead. One needs a context, an embedding in a social environment, a sense of chronology to create the texture and tenor of the story and its sense of truth. Recent articles on the censorship of history in NCERT textbooks illustrate this. I remember the first time this controversy arose over three decades ago. The atmosphere smelled of debate and difference. There was vigour and vitality to both sides, the Left in particular showing that there is creativity and trusteeship in scholarship. I remember a debate at the Delhi school of Economics, where historians like Romila Thapar and Sumit Sarkar were both courageous and incisive. One misses the effervescence of these moments.

Sadly, when controversies surface again, there is a touch of banality to them. The word used by the NCERT director to justify his decision was “rationalisation”. It hints that this is not the opening up of a new controversy but a mopping-up operation. It implies that the basic work has been done and a bit of pruning is all that is required. In fact, as one reads the reports now, what one senses is not a rectification of the past as injustice but a reordering of the future as a new possibility.

The BJP regime, already facing the election of 2024, is ensuring that its future does not become an embarrassment. The regime is reordering memory. It is clear that majoritarian memories to survive must rework history. Now, anyone who challenges the official world of history is both anti-government and anti-national. Patriotism merely becomes a chorus called the official. For the regime, censorship of NCERT books is an attempt to rework the future. It is seen as an act of pruning or gardening, implying that pruning culture is as natural as trimming a plant.

One has to realise that at the level of culture, something deeper is happening. We are not merely invoking the rectification of history as symptomatic of the struggle for power. The canvas is larger: we are moving to a control of governance through memory. The regime realises the importance of orality and folklore as being powerful alternative frames. Orality and folklore as memory require a world of norms and rituals. Orality is continuously inventive and the BJP realises that the governance of memory has to be more encompassing than historical rewriting. The regime now adds the monitoring of memory to the control of information. Its sense of Orwell is more orderly and cynical.

What one gasps at in futility is the silence of dissenters and scholars. There is little that is spontaneous in ritual negativity. The efflorescence of debates and ideas that once haunted these events no longer exists. At the most we summon a few foreign scholars to talk about the vitality of Mughal culture. Erasure and rectification are now norms of the new civic culture. Rectification is now a part of the new government model of progress. An Indian take on the new post-truth societies.

One senses this acutely as one examines the list of erasures the BJP indulges in. Firstly, the BJP has to exorcise the stigmata of Gandhi’s assassination. Simultaneously, it has to rewrite the Gujarat riots and erase it as an index of genocide. It has to erase any sense of Mughal tolerance or syncretism. Each act, while connected, requires a different style of thinking and control.

Let’s consider the Gujarat riots. The Delhi riots of 1984 and the Gujarat violence of 2002 represented a different kind of violence. But both these riots were no longer seen as occasional and random but systematic acts of extermination of people. Genocide was woven into the texture of the act and rape was openly methodological. The perpetrator pretends he is a victim restoring himself to history. Oddly, even rape becomes a restoration of justice. For instance, many rapists felt that rape was an attempt to redeem the honour of Padmini. Banality of brutal rape becomes critical. Elections merely confirm the link between the power of majoritarian violence and the ruthless efficacy of majoritarian governments. The sordid history of the Gujarat riots disappears from the NCERT textbook. The erasure of memory becomes a self-righteous task while the minority—Muslim—watches helplessly.

Gandhi has been the most problematic figure for the RSS and BJP. Gandhi’s assassination by Godse is a stigma that the regime cannot erase. Yet, Gandhi is too original to be internalised or adopted by the regime. His non-violence is indigestible, his satyagraha too immaculate yet everyday for the BJP to imitate. BJP icons like Veer Savarkar cut little ice before Gandhi as an exemplar. Yet, that fragment of history concerned with his assassination eludes the Orwellian clutches of the BJP regime. Blanket erasure seems to be the only alternative. The moral and political complexity of Mohandas Gandhi haunts them. Gandhi is a reminder of the limited imagination of the BJP cadres. The only feasible solution is to erase history and empty the textbook so the regime can later invent a new affiliation to Gandhi. But memory is complex, inventive and recalcitrant. Gandhi will forever haunt this regime. His two worlds of ‘Satyagraha’ and ‘Swaraj’ elude them. Only ‘Swadeshi’ is a word they can partly nibble at and domesticate. Erasing a textbook fragment seems a parochial act while confession in Gandhian style would have been more impressive. The regime has to learn to experiment with truth rather than tinker with it.

The third story is an older attempt where Mughals like Akbar are denied any sense of tolerance or syncretism. They are merely branded as outsiders. The regime wants to order marginal minorities and their dissent, domesticating them within the mainstream monolithic imagination of the majority. Despite the power of media and censorship, India as a culture is too inventive. Suppressing the folklore of Gandhi or the rumour of the Gujarat riots will never be total. These events are too seductive to memory. There is little a regime can do beyond hacking a textbook. One has to realise that as lethal as post-truth is, our myth, folklore and gossip are worlds which are difficult to control. History as a method and official ideology needs to learn from them and move towards a plurality of narratives. Democracy remains democracy when it continually renews and reinvents a pluralistic self. It is this that history needs to record.

(The writer is a Social scientist associated with THE COMPOST HEAP, a group researching alternative imaginations)(Courtesy: The New Indian Express)