Those who saw the 1956 film The Swan, starring Grace Kelly, Alec Guinness and Louis Jourdan, may recall one royal victim of Napoleon’s German conquests recommending to another a new book that conclusively proved the Corsican emperor had never existed. That’s the kind of convenient history many Indians crave for. Some are inspired by patriotic zeal. Others don’t realise that in flogging the dead horse of colonialism, they are only jumping through a hoop held up by the British who take a masochistic delight in flagellation, especially when their former subjects crack the whip, Caliban whipping Prospero.
We haven’t come to terms with the past. No one argues as yet that Supreme Court judges are at sixes and sevens because the British wouldn’t allow them to wear full-bottomed wigs all the time. Or that India boasted superb rail, air and postal services until the British came and ruined them through their inefficient bureaucracy and corrupt politicians. But the New Year’s Day conflagration in Pune’s BhimaKoregaon village revealed how difficult it is to mine history to support modern causes. The attacked were dalits celebrating the 1818 victory of British and Mahar (Maharashtra’s largest dalit group) troops over the Peshwa’s Maratha Confederacy, which was regarded as oppressively casteist. The attackers were saffron flag-waving mobs upholding Maratha pride.
It all began with the innocent fervour of P.N. Oak, who eulogised the saffron paradise before it was born. His Institute for Rewriting Indian History was meant to correct the “biased and distorted versions” of invaders, colonisers and secular and Marxist historians. Had he been with us still, he would no doubt have been sent to the Rajya Sabha and given some rank to match Britain’s Poet Laureate or Astronomer Royal, perhaps RashtriyaItihas Guru. But although circumstantial evidence does suggest our ancient seers and sadhus may have stumbled on certain scientific concepts like the laws of gravity, that hardly means they whizzed round the universe in spaceships. Nor did their mastery of “genetic science” create a nation of warriors who were born outside the maternal womb. It’s even less likely that rampant “plastic surgery” resulted in hordes of decapitated elephants.
Our leaders invite the world’s ridicule with flippant boasts about such accomplishments. Even Oak’s theories, far-fetched though they were, might have merited some attention had it not been for a series of bad puns such as seeing Abraham and George as aberrations of Brahma and Garg, or describing the Vatican as a Vedic creation called Vatika. He even titled one of his books Christianity is Chrisnnity, meaning – you guessed it! – Christianity is the ethics of Krishna.
Such myths about ancient times would have caused less concern if the fantasising hadn’t followed British fashion and shifted to the recent past. Since the United Kingdom vogue is to denigrate empire and imperial achievements, our intellectuals feel obliged to follow suit. Never mind if Jawaharlal Nehru wrote: “After every other viceroy has been forgotten, Curzon will be remembered because he restored all that was beautiful in India.” If hallowed Balliol College thinks it fashionable to remove the very superior person’s portrait from its great hall, no self-respecting Indian can continue to honour the man whose Ancient Monuments Bill drew Nehru’s lavish praise by rescuing India’s past.
Earlier, India’s Rhodes Scholars, past, present and future, suffered agonies of indecision and uncertainty until only the fear of alienating rich and generous donors persuaded Oriel College not to send Cecil Rhodes’s statue packing.
Some of our Rhodes Scholars might have enjoyed emulating Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore and the Beatles by flinging back the distinction with a proud flourish. But Gandhi, Tagore and the Beatles didn’t have to return any money. Would patriotic Rhodes Scholars have had to reimburse their stipends?
Such commercial motives often lie coiled like the asp in Cleopatra’s basket of figs in many seemingly principled decisions. History is passé, but revisionist history sells. Think also of the money West Bengal’s canny Marxist-dominated coalition saved by rededicating the existing Ochterlony Monument to martyrs of the independence movement. The Irish could have done the same and renamed Nelson’s Pillar in Dublin to honour Roger Casement, the patriot whom England hanged. Instead, being Irish, they bombed it. Also, being Irish, the explosives they planted during the Easter Rising, the one in which our V.V. Giri cut his revolutionary teeth, were too damp to explode. While the government dithered over dismantling the trust charged with the task of preserving Nelson’s Pillar in perpetuity, the bombs planted in 1966 failed to blow up the entire column and statue. No one was accused of the demolition, fuelling the suspicion that the authorities looked the other way while Ireland’s police bungled the job. Not at all like the Babri Masjid’s efficient destruction.
Oak would have been more pleased with Rajasthan’s decision 441 years after the Battle of Haldighati that far from winning it in 1576, the Mughal forces lost to the valiant MaharanaPratap of Mewar. There still remains a small difficulty. Akbar, the wise and enlightened emperor whom some today want to be posthumously declared an enemy alien and banished to Central Asia, was nowhere near the battlefield. His trusted general, Raja Man Singh I of Amber, led the Mughal forces. Far from representing Hinduism’s triumph over Islam, a Mughal defeat would have meant Man Singh’s disgrace.
It’s far safer to let the past remain undisturbed. Living in troubled times, Omar Khayyam knew what he was about when he advised: “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,/Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit/ Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,/Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.” Creative invention won’t either.