(This was co-authored with Parag Tope, the author of Tatya Tope’s Operation Red Lotus and originally published at Niti Central)
With a nationalistic government leading India, there is an unprecedented opportunity to undo the damage that has been caused to Indian memories, by forces hostile to Indic ethos. A natural reaction would be to take an opposite position to reverse the damage. This series takes a step back and analyses the mechanisms used by our ancestors. Had they developed a framework for recording history that is staring at us but we don’t realize? If so, can we decode that framework and can that offer us guidance in creating an analytical and an Indic approach to reassessing history?
The first part argued that India’s experience and memories are distinct from other places – and there India needs its own framework. In this part we review the politics of “official” history and argue that India needs a different approach. In the subsequent parts we decode the unique Indic methodology of editorializing, preserving and transmitting, not only narratives but even lessons learned. The final part will look at how that decoded knowledge can help formulate a new framework for reassessing Indic history, and perhaps even the history of humanity.
Politics of Historiography
European polity has dominated modern discourse in recent times, and it is represented in their hierarchical top-down systems that come in various flavours. Whether they are an “-acy”, an “-ism”, or an “-ity,” they have one thing in common: they all view society either as errant or as similar to sheep, which needs to be controlled and shepherded. What differentiates various systems from each other is the extent of shepherding and whether the shepherds emerge from the flock they seek to control. This has translated into academic institutions and government machinery that attempt to wield control over society.
Western Historiography is based on theoretical frameworks, such as Marxism, nationalism, post-colonialism, post-modernism, feminism and more, and draws from social sciences, religion and anthropology among others. These frameworks provide a specific perspective and the conclusion reached by historians depends on which of these coloured lenses they are wearing. Historiography has been used as tools to control the “masses” and follows a consistent pattern. First, “eminent” people with certificates of qualifications and specialized degrees are given charge of influential institutions in the nation. They control the intellectual framework for history and anthropology and define the narratives based on that framework. Next, large universities and institutions which are well funded, author huge volumes of writings, which are then condensed and simplified for various educational levels. Finally, the government controlled educational system works as a distribution channel for students who are nothing more than consumers of ideas created by these “highly qualified” people.
This is in complete contrast to India’s ethos where society determined qualifications of individuals based on their observed day to day actions. Personal sacrifice of material gain and power, combined with demonstrable knowledge, was given the highest respect; not degrees and certificates from highly funded institutions. Further, the responsibility of propagating memories remained with society and was never outsourced to any authority or central institution, regardless of their qualifications, stature or intelligence. India’s long held memories, helped Indians recognize the patterns of oppression inflicted by the British and they fought against Britain relentlessly. The part success achieved in the Anglo-Indian war of 1857 was a result of Indian memories that equipped Indian society to support Indian leaders form alliances and challenge the oppressive economic, political and social systems imposed by the British. The Azamgarh proclamation of August 1857, which demanded political, economic and personal freedom, was an acknowledgement of this unbroken Indian ethos.
To neutralize India’s decentralized memories, the British launched a two pronged attack. First, they created centralized institutional structures, and second, used those institutions to launch an ideological assault and propaganda against Indic ethos. They hired consultants to write Indian history with an anti-Indic bias through various narratives. The mission of these pen wielding mercenaries was to eventually replace India’s unique memories with “official history.”
The techniques for erasing memories were already perfected within the Western world. As Christianity spread, “Pagan” cultures were erased, Orwellian memory holes were created to incinerate inconvenient remnants of past history to prevent any resurgence of those who were vanquished. Sometimes the incineration was physical, with the near successful genocide in the “New World”, where “Guns, Germs and Steel”, were used to wipe out native people and their memories. In other cases, less dramatic but effective memory holes were created by renaming places, persons or objects to unlink them from the past.
Fortunately, the two pronged assault on India was not entirely successful. Indian society viewed the English rule and any institution that attempted to influence society with scepticism. With the exception of a small section of the English influenced minority, Indians largely ignored centralized propaganda that passed off as history.
However, this changed after the English were evicted. India had the opportunity to neutralize both the assaults by dismantling the centralized institutions as well as end the propaganda perpetuated against Indic ethos. Independent India’s leaders did neither.
The centralized institutions not only remained intact, they were strengthened. In the early decades following the eviction of the English, a battle ensued to control these centralized institutions. All sides claimed that their attempt to rewrite history was from an Indian perspective. While some groups viewed India from anti-Islamic narrative, others viewed India from an anti-imperialist narrative. Neither presented any insights into Indic ethos nor offered a narrative that was correlated to Indian memories. In fact, the Marxists, defined by their own lenses, created an imagined narrative consistent with their ideological preferences and a strong anti-Indic bias. None of the warring factions really understood India and its eternal memories, or worse deliberately chose to misrepresent India.
The Marxists won this battle and exercised complete control over education, academia and humanities. The only change Independence bought was that English propaganda was replaced by Marxist propaganda, which was propagated using the old and newly formed institutions created with the same intent.
They successfully labelled themselves as “historians” (without the Marxist tag), or “liberals with a scientific outlook” while anyone questioning them were slandered as “communal.” They continued the attack on the section of society which was critical in preserving memories through stories and philosophical treatises, and blamed them for all the ills in society. The Marxist historians considered it their burden to fix the flaws of an errant Indian society through power and manipulation. They highlighted the negativity that had befallen India’s social fabric during India’s economic destruction under English misrule, and extrapolated that negativity into the past. They furthered this propaganda by collaborating with Western Historians and self-proclaimed “Indologists” and continued the English tradition of assailing Indian society. They leveraged this misrepresentation to promote the idea that holding on to the past was “orthodoxy” and forgetting it, “progress.”
Indian society was more receptive to the propaganda produced by these post-independence institutions because they believed that they were run by “well-meaning and progressive” Indians. These “historians” either lacked an understanding of Indic ethos or deliberately chose to misunderstand it. They used centralized institutions to propagate ideas learned from their peers in other parts of the world. For them everything was a class struggle and this thesis had to be accepted for one to be considered as “secular.”
Despite this propaganda, Indian society and families continued to practice traditional pursuits and maintaining a culture that implicitly represented the unbroken narrative of India. Over time Indian society continued to reject what was taught in classrooms because it had little correlation with the culture that they lived in. This scepticism prevented the centralized monolithic machinery from gaining wide acceptance in Indian society – thus continuing to shield India’s ethos of decentralized history.
Today, India is at a crossroads again.
From अध्यात्मिक Participants to Bystanders and Consumers
A nationalistic Indian government is leading India, which wears an unabashedly pro-Indian lens rather than the jaundiced lenses worn by the Marxists. This nationalistic government now controls these centralized institutions created by the English and then expanded by the Marxists.
Is this situation good for Indic ethos?
Contrary to what most nationalists believe, the situation has the potential to be disastrous. In fact, far more so than the Marxist takeover of these institutions.
The reason is that a majority of Indians in society, who thus far have viewed both the English and Marxists with suspicion, might let their guard down and accept centralized and nationalistic versions of Indian history that might be written from an Indian point of view. For them, a rewriting of Indian history with a nationalist viewpoint would be the perfect way to undo the damage cause thus far.
What they don’t see is that the fundamental flaw in India’s post-Independent approach to history was not about who would control these institutions. The flaw was that these centralized monolithic institutions continued to exist for someone to control, as a proposed replacement for India’s decentralized memories. It is not the narrative, with or without the biases, that is the primary threat to India’s memories, but the mere existence of any official narrative, that is accepted by society, that will pose as the biggest threat to India’s decentralized history.
Indian society today, despite the educational system, has remained active in transmitting past memories. However, if the Indian government offers a curriculum in history that the society finds acceptable, then the society will transform itself from proponents and champions of history to consumers of history. Society will become a mere bystander as “better qualified people with degrees and certificates,” combined with a “nationalistic outlook” take control over what always belonged to the people.
India’s ethos is driven by the engine of diversity and powered by the principles of अध्यात्म (adhyatma). Adhyatma, roughly translates as “the supreme self,” where the self is considered to be the prime mover as each person takes responsibility for themselves and thus builds a self-reliant society. Whether India embraces a “unifying” consumer culture in materialistic pursuits is a separate discussion. The immediate question is will India embrace a consumer culture in history and philosophy? As a society that respects the notion of अध्यात्म, India’s core strength is her ability to thrive intellectually, at the level of each individual, without external authority and despite the government – be it oppressive or friendly. No oppressive ruler has been able to take that away from her. Will a friendly government succeed in dismantling India’s decentralized ethos, where all enemies have failed?
Of all the threats that Indian memories have faced – the threat of a successful implementation and acceptance of centralized history is the gravest. What the Mughals could not even dent, where Macaulay and Bentinck mostly failed, and where Marxist controlled institutions could only find limited success in hurting India’s ethos – will a Indian society finally accept a centralized history. Will a nationalistic government become an agent of destruction of the Indian nation’s core values preserved in India’s decentralized, dispersive and percipient history?
The answer depends on the choices that are made today.
If rewriting centralized Indian history from a nationalistic perspective poses a risk – what is the alternative?
To make recommendations, it is important to take a step back, analyse and to understand how Indians preserved their memories successfully despite the invasions and subjugation. The following two parts attempts to decode the Indic Historical Framework and presents that as an alternative model that is consistent with India’s ethos. The fifth and final part in this series makes some general and some specific recommendations for the government of India to mitigate the risks that India’s eternal memories face.
In the next part we will introduce the concept of percipient history and contrast it with the petrified history of other ancient civilizations.
(This was co-authored with Parag Tope, the author of Tatya Tope’s Operation Red Lotus and originally published at Niti Central)