Last week, India’s home minister and president of the ruling BJP, Amit Shah, in a seminar at Banaras Hindu University, on Skandagupta Vikramaditya, a king in ancient North India, said history should be written from an Indian point of view, but ‘without blaming anyone.’
Skandagupta — 455-467 CE — Shah said, fought a foreign invasion as mentioned in a pillar inscription in Bhitari, North India. Those who win get to write. Despite his heroism and his great benevolence to the arts, there is no real documentation of the king and his (hopefully) golden reign. Shah deplored the silence over an Indian great.
In the same speech, to underline how alienated the Indian narrative is from Indians, he referred to the 1857 revolt by Indian soldiers against the British, and which the whites and those who toed their line dismissed as ‘mutiny,’ until the Hindutva ideologue and controversial figure V.D. Savarkar (1883-1966) called it a rebellion, the first of a series that culminated with India’s independence in 1947.
Shah’s point was whether, ancient or modern, Indian history suffers from a colonial bias, and that it is now by default shared by the Liberals; he also was digging the ribs of the academic world which continues to benefit from the perpetuation of that perspective.
These are times though no good king can be assessed for his worth if he is Hindu. It could be easily construed as an exercise in majoritarian endorsement; not as a more nuanced attempt at understanding your past. No country more than India spends so much time obsessing about history, to own or disown the past, as a means to justify the present, and build that mythical future.
One is his association — though the court exonerated him of all charges — with Nathuram Godse who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in 1948. The other is his recent promotion by the BJP in Maharashtra (the state from where Savarkar hails) as a candidate for Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian award of India.
The disdain, or neglect even, that Skandagupta seems to elicit despite his seemingly stellar nationalist work was largely ignored as a point of debate by the academic community,
Savarkar, whose idea of India as a Hindu State, and whose contribution toward India’s independence is constantly called into question by Liberals, trended. Mainly for two highly ruminated and regurgitated reasons. One is his association — though the court exonerated him of all charges — with Nathuram Godse who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in 1948. The other is his recent promotion by the BJP in Maharashtra (the state from where Savarkar hails) as a candidate for Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian award of India.
The Liberals oppose the idea because Savarkar appealed for clemency to the British. He was arrested for his involvement with activities in India House, a revolutionary hothouse and student hostel, based in London, where Savarkar was studying law, and where he wrote, among other things, the ‘Indian War of Independence’, a heartfelt attempt to appreciate the sepoy mutiny of 1857 as India’s first stop in the revolutionary road.
He dabbled with explosives manufacture (his hands were often stained with picric acid, according to one account) and arms exports, and had a role to play in at least two political assassinations, of British officers. The British arrested him. They sent him back to India, where he stood trial and was packed off to the infamous Cellular Jail, in Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
He spent over 10 years behind bars. The torture of incarceration broke his spirit. He repeatedly wrote to the authorities for mercy and swore to give up violence. Who wouldn’t? When the Second World War broke, Savarkar promised to help Britain with his good offices. This is precisely what the Congress leadership including Gandhi too did.
Did Savarkar, later in his life, fundamentally differ from his initial views of the Hindu State? He did not. Did he want Gandhi killed? There is no proof. Was he a patriot? He was — to all appearances. He wanted a strong India, for sure, even if the nature of its politics was problematic.
But to find truth in the middle ground is to invite the wrath of both the Right and the Left. Indeed, it is in the greys that the composite nature of the Indian reality exists. Yet, with each passing day, that prospect slips farther from the grasp.
Recently, Romila Thapar, a matriarch of the Liberals, was in the news. At Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University — a bastion of the Left for most of the 50 years of its existence, but no longer so in terms of who is running it — where she was Professor Emeritus and served the institution with much elan for long, was asked to send her bio-data for renewal of her post. This was considered an affront by the Liberals. Perhaps the professor was a strong and commodious cupboard to hang the various coats of hounded victimhood.
But the reason why the Right establishment stood its ground and stayed the course was that they know only too well that the narrative of any event is largely determined by who articulates it. It cannot be accidental that Thapar is a professor in ancient Indian History
Amit Shah in his speech said the Indian story should be told from an Indian perspective. He knows that the telling, the voice, changes the facts. The Liberals know it too. It is just that they think they have the natural right to assume its articulation. That is being systematically put to test.
To bring the forgotten kings like Skandagupta back into headlines; or to find among the seemingly traitorous dead a patriot like Savarkar is not, then, a random exercise. The abrogation of Article 370 and the continuing Kashmir crisis are all of a piece.
The Kashmir truculence has been, in the debates following the abrogation over three months ago, pinned on Nehru’s mishandling of the accession issue. Not entirely perhaps; but a just a few years ago, the very idea that Nehru might well have been inept would not have seriously occurred to any. It does now.
Skandagupta must smile in his grave. Savarkar, too.
C.P. Surendran is a senior journalist based in India.