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Historical Distortions Galore

There is nothing surprising about the attempt of the Bharatiya Janata Party to relegate the contributions of Tipu Sultan to the background by labeling him “anti-Hindu” and “anti-Kannada,” or forcing Kashmiri students studying outside the state to chant “Bharat Mata ki Jai” (the essentialist Hindutva version of “Viva India”). The kind of dialogue I have in mind can be exemplified by the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation of 1989. Either directly or indirectly, the types of conflicts that led to this event resonate throughout the writings of the South Asian authors whose works I have been teaching and discussing.

A disused sixteenth-century mosque in Ayodhya, the Babri Masjid, was demolished by Hindu supporters of the Saffron movement who hoped to construct a temple, the Ram Janmabhoomi, on that site. Hindu-Muslim riots swept Northern India in the wake of the Ram

Janmabhoomi agitation. Both sides attempted to create a new past for the nation. In the case of the majority Hindus, the militant Hinduism that the Ram Janmabhoomi movement incited challenged the basic principle that the nation was founded on: democracy.

Community was evoked in order to create nostalgia for a concocted past that was meticulously contrived. The religious chauvinism that was manifested during this dark period in the history of India was transformed into bigotry supported by transnationals in the U.S. and the U.K. Bigotry defined identities and ideologies, treating the idea of a multilingual and multiethnic and secular nation as if it were a myth.

The academics and activists who endeavored to transform that “myth” into reality were dubbed “outsiders” and “inauthentic.” These progressive attempts such academics and activists were challenged by the construction of a mythic history asserting national tradition in a classically fascist form. This project of constructing the history of a nation involves selective appropriation of past and present histories and an abrogation of major parts of those histories.

For instance, Kai Friese reported in the New York Times that in November 2002, during the reign of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the National Council of Education Research and Training in India, which is the central Indian government organization that finalizes the national curriculum and supervises education for high school students, circulated a new text-book for Social Sciences and History. The textbook conveniently overlooks the embarrassing fact that the architect of Indian independence, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist in 1948, a year after the proclamation of independence. Fries makes the reader aware that this version of Indian history has also been embellished by some interesting fabrications. One of those fabrications is the erasing of the “Indus Valley” Civilization and its replacement by the mythical “Indus-Saraswati” Civilization.

The erasure of the Indus Valley Civilization and the conjuring of the “Indus-Saraswati” Civilization in its stead is a strategic maneuver to negate the fact that the ancient scriptures of Hinduism are associated with the advent of the Aryan peoples from the Northwest, and that Hinduism is a syncretic religious tradition that has evolved through a commingling of various cultures and traditions (15).

In this nationalist project, one of the forms that the nullification of past and present histories takes is the subjection of religious minorities to a centralized and authoritarian state buttressed by nostalgia of a “glorious past.” Thus, the Babri Masjid, an obscure little mosque, was destroyed by an unruly mob that rallied around the Bharatiya Janata Party, which is the second largest political party in India. By blatantly advocating and supporting the destruction of the Babri Masjid, the Bharatiya Janata Party and its followers negated thelegislation of the highest court of law in the land that sought to protect the site by staying its appropriation by any political party.

The legislation was not only abrogated by the active mobilization of the fractious crowd, but by the bigwigs of the BJP who presided over the demolition of the mosque. The mob was spurred on by an overwhelming sense of hysteria and exhortations to violence. This movement, as Vijay Mishra observes, received financial support from immigrants, who supported Hindutva, in the West, “and the funding of Hindu institutions, temples, and other supposedly ‘charitable’ enterprises by diaspora Hindutva advocates, particularly those from the United States, can be established beyond doubt” (194).

Such appeals and unambiguous encouragement to enjoin the native mob to commit acts of violence were, according to Aijaz Ahmad, “replete with appeals to national pride, racial redemption, contempt for law and civility” (Lineages 183).

One of the celebrities whose historical analysis of the Islamic conquests in India seems to fan the flames of divisive politics, pitting Hindus against Muslims, is the Nobel laureate, V.S. Naipaul. In his Beyond Belief, Naipaul dismissed Islam as an alien imposition which had estranged the nations of the Indian subcontinent from their own heritage. He writes that the Muslims of India and Pakistan lack an “authentic” Muslim lineage and so are severed from a keen sense of reality.

According to the author, the condition of such non-Arab Muslims has “an element of neurosis and nihilism” (Beyond Belief 34). Naipaul’s inference seems to erase the tremendous adaptation, indigenization, and evolution of Islam in countries like India. Needless to say, it reinforces the claims of right-wingers who label present-day Muslims “outsiders” or “invaders” in India.

Such claims ignore how communities grow historically within the framework created by a dialogic discourse. The author, of Indian origin who lives in England, has portrayed India as “full of the signs of growth,” with all the signs of an “Indian, and more specifically, Hindu awakening” (India 98).

On the other hand, in Pakistan, impassioned appeals of the clergy to outdated sectarian concepts has bred rancorous hate and exploited the illiteracy and poverty of the majority of Muslims in the Indian subcontinent, who were unable to study the progressive concepts of Islam for themselves. This strategy of fortifying fundamentalism created a gulf between the “believers” and “non-believers” rooted in contemporary politics, not ancient history. Ultra right-wing political and religious organizations in both India and Pakistan have justified repression of dispossessed classes, and subjugation of minorities and women with the language of culture and religion.

Such practices have led to the regrettable rupture of the Indian subcontinent and to a denial of science and historical understanding of the precepts of Islam.

More articles by:

Nyla Ali Khan is the author of Fiction of Nationality in an Era of Transnationalism, Islam, Women, and Violence in Kashmir, The Life of a Kashmiri Woman, and the editor of The Parchment of Kashmir. Nyla Ali Khan has also served as an guest editor working on articles from the Jammu and Kashmir region for Oxford University Press (New York), helping to identify, commission, and review articles. She can be reached at nylakhan@aol.com.

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