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“In new India, anyone who shreds a few posters at the crossroads becomes a historian”

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An excerpt from the journalist’s new book of essays on democracy and the nation.

BY: Ravish Kumar

There are many ways to falsify history. During the West Bengal elections of 2016, we saw new wonders of the national curriculum unfold. In no time at all the “Netaji files” were exhumed from the central government archives and aired, and an impression was created that one of the icons of our freedom movement, Subhas Chandra Bose, had been denied his place in history until now and that he would now be given his due. It did not matter that almost every child in India knows of him, that he has found a prominent place in the national narrative and in textbooks across the country for decades, and his pictures have adorned millions of homes and offices. For days we heard of Netaji from his new champions – many of whom had never bothered with him before. Sometimes he was pitted against Nehru and at other times in opposition to other leaders. There was a chorus of concern for Netaji. But once the BJP lost the state election, he was consigned to oblivion.

This kind of misuse of history must be avoided at all cost. By all means, visit a library to know more about the ups and downs in the relationship between Nehru and Bose. However, if you look towards a television studio debate to learn more about their equation, be warned that numerous pitfalls await you – prime among them being an anchor who doesn’t have the time to read two newspapers a day or a single book in an entire year but becomes a historian by night, destroying your mind on a daily basis.

This is not an issue that is limited to our times but concerns future generations as well. We have managed to come this far without much mishap. But how many will now fall into the many pits being dug all around in front of our eyes, I cannot say.

What I can say is that it is not you and I alone who will fall into these traps; we will be condemned to seeing our children being ensnared and injured – the children we dandle on our laps, wishing them a bright future.

There are many new heroes who emerge these days, fully formed, with entire mythologies of physical bravery and success, and make a grand entry into politics, dressed to kill. They want to wipe out the past, rewrite it in their own image. They think they are creating history in the present, whereas history has scripted the present of the likes of them a long time ago. Try as they might, they cannot change it. They will be exposed, we only need to keep our eyes and ears open.

If we learn to negotiate the past, we will no longer be perplexed or fooled by the present. For instance, there was no need to invoke the name of Sardar Patel during the Gujarat elections of late 2017; his name had already been used during the Lok Sabha elections of 2014. Except that this time around his name was being used liberally to placate the disgruntled Patel community of the state. Did it work? We don’t know. But I humbly submit to the Patel community: Sardar is too big a statesman to belong to one group, or to be dragged into the arena of cynical politics.

A narrative has been built about the animosity between Sardar Patel and Jawaharlal Nehru, the latter being the villain. But if the new heroes of our nation would care to listen, I would tell them: If you read the correspondence between Nehru and Sardar, and dispassionate records of their relationship, your eyes will well up. If such friends, such co-travellers were to become a part of your life, you would be blessed indeed. If you can be Nehru to someone and that person can be Patel to you, know that you have earned the world’s most precious riches. But, if by your deeds you have repudiated the legacy of the very person you hail as Sardar, if you have appropriated him and reduced him to a 182-metre statue, you have lost everything.

Some forty-fifty years after Sardar Patel, we saw one more “Sardar” come and go in Indian politics. In between, he rode a rath. He too was called “lauh purush” (iron man), he too set out to control and transform India, but is not to be seen opening his mouth these days. History can be like that, too.

To come back to Nehru and Patel, the immense respect they had for each other and their friendship ought to be compulsory reading for those studying politics. How, in spite of differing viewpoints, they continued to respect each other, is what should be taught in classrooms, not that Nehru and Patel destroyed each other’s lives and aspirations. No, it was not so. In Indian politics there cannot be a bigger example of two statesmen, two individuals, forging a path of accord in the midst of differences.

An attempt is being made to erase that history. But the attempt will not succeed for the simple reason that someone has lived that history. How can that which has been lived be obliterated?

The above-mentioned instances are not mere tactics of one-upmanship in the battle between two political parties. They are part of a careful strategy to exert control over us – to seize and occupy our minds. For, when we start looking at the present and the past with their gaze, we will no longer be ourselves. Slowly but surely we are being moulded into a people who can be easily controlled by means of routine mechanisms of authority – a lapdog media, biased text books, IT cells, the Aadhar number...

Organisations based on caste, religion and intolerant politics are increasing their stranglehold on history. Tearing down a few posters, ransacking libraries and cinema halls suffices for leaders of these organisations to become historians. Burning history books presents a way of becoming a part of history, as does the act of ling an FIR against a writer. Most of all, if you know the way to the neighbourhood of the person you have been taught to see as the “other”, and if you walk there with flashing eyes and even a stick in your hand, you are a part of history and a historian.

This wonder of wonders can only be accomplished in India, not in other places. In other countries, you have to spend five to ten years of your life researching one tiny part of one particular subject before you earn the right to be called a historian. In this new and restless India, however, anyone who shreds a few posters at the crossroads becomes a historian.

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