Modi rule has pushed us into another dark age: D. N. Jha

November 29, 2014

[Abhay Kumar interviews eminent historian D.N. Jha on Colonialism, RSS & History]

Professor D. N. Jha is not only an eminent historian of ancient India but also a committed activist against communalism. When the saffronisation of school textbooks was undertaken under Vajpayee’s government, he was at the forefront of opposing it. The author of Myth of the Holy Cow, Jha rues that Modi, unlike Vajpayee, will go the whole hog and will saffronize history and education as the BJP now has a full majority. In a conversation with Abhay Kumar on Wednesday evening, November 19, in Jawaharlal Nehru University, Prof. Jha calls Modi rule as a “dark age” and he, thus, urges us to fight against it.

Q. You have been a strong supporter of purging schools of communal history textbooks. How does the mode of history-writing influence society?

I disagree with those historians who claim that secular history does not have much influence on society. On the contrary, I argue that it does. For example, James Mill in his book “The History of British India” divided Indian history into three periods, Hindu, Muslim and British. His periodisation was based on religion, which has a lasting influence on Indian historians as well as the minds of people. Mill’s categories stayed with Indian historians such as K.M. Munshi, K.P. Jayaswal and R.C. Majumdar, who wrote about ancient India. When Majumdar authored a multi-volume Indian history published by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, he devoted much space to “Hindu period,” promoting revivalism and communalism. It was the communal history produced by colonial historians that influenced views about Muslims being “foreigners” and Hindus being “indigenous”. The same line of anti-Muslim prejudice was expressed by Modi’s recent speech when he talked about twelve-hundred years of slavery.

Q. The Hindu Right accuses the secular historian to be “sons of Macaulay” but you seem to suggest that they are “sons of communal colonial historians”.

R.C. Majumdar and others, who drew on colonial writings, talked about “the great Indian past”. The same myth of “greater India” is being propagated by the RSS and its ideologue Dinanath Batra, who nourish an imperial ambition of redrawing the boundary of India. This is the agenda behind their talk of Akhand Bharat, which is being injected in children’s minds thorough Gujarat school textbooks. The anti-Muslim attitude of the RSS was shaped by the colonial historians such as H. M. Elliot and John Dawson, who compiled The History of India as Told by Its Own Historians. They denounced Muslims, contending that they destroyed temples and persecuted Hindus. The real purpose of Elliot’s formulation was to inject a heavy dose of communalism in the minds of people of the 19th century. Let me reiterate that the supporters of “Indianisation” of histories are heavily influenced by the likes of Mill and Elliot.

Q. Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed that the practice of plastic surgery existed in ancient India by citing the example of Ganesha. As a historian how do you interpret his statement?

Modi’s statement is also found in Batra’s book prescribed in Gujarat Schools. Batra states that ancient India had car and airplane or viman that brought Ram to Ayodhya. Batra and the RSS also speak of Vedic mathematics which they wish to introduce in school syllabi. But there is nothing Vedic about the Vedic Mathematics book. What is being passed as Vedic mathematics was the work of Shankaracharya of Puri, published after his death. In fact these examples show that the so-called Indianisation of history is nothing but undue glorification of “Hindu” India. Having painted the so-called “Hindu” period as “the Golden Age”, the RSS dismisses the subsequent period, the period of Muslim domination, as one of “decadence”. In other words, the “glorification” of “Hindu” period goes hand in hand with the denigration of Muslims. As historians we have long given up calling any period as a “dark age” in history but now we are pushed into another dark age by Modi rule and we have to fight this.

Q. As a historian what do you have to say about Dinanath Batra and his views on Indian past? Will you like to have a conversation with him about Indian history?

Batra is a retired school teacher and RSS pracharak. I look at him with sheer contempt. I would not sit with him for any conversation.

Q. The educational qualification of Smriti Irani was questioned by the opposition parties. What were your reactions when she took over the charge of the HRD ministry which was earlier occupied by learned persons like Maulana Azad and Professor Nurul Hasan? How strongly is she likely to carry out the process of rewriting history?

It is a paradox that a person like Smriti Irani has been appointed as the HRD minister but we cannot question this because in a democracy any citizen, irrespective of his/her educational qualification, can rise to the highest position. Unlike former HRD Minister Murli Manohar Joshi who was ideologically-driven, she is believed to be guided by others.

Q. The saffronisation of education was resisted during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s regime. After the gap of ten years, Modi has resumed the same process. Is there any qualitative difference between Vajpayee’s approach and Modi’s?

Vajpayee did not fully succeed in saffronising education and history-writing and the new government subsequently withdrew the earlier books. The constraints Vajpayee faced were the absence of an absolute majority. But the BJP now has got a full majority. I think Modi will go the whole hog. That is why the challenges today are much bigger than before.

Q. Apart from the right-wing forces, Marxist historiography has also been criticised by new historians, who were involved in writing textbooks after the UPA-I came to power in 2004. Would you like to comment on this?

The emergence of new group of historians is a challenge to us and we are concerned about it.

Q. Marxist historiography has got a lot of flak for ignoring the caste question. How do you respond to this?

This is partially true. But it is also a fact that we have engaged with the caste question. R.S. Sharma was the first historian to write the history of Sudras in Ancient India. Other historians like Suvira Jaiswal and Vivekanand Jha contributed to the study of caste. Both Sharma and Vivekanand Jha differed with Ambedkar on caste. I do not think there was any deliberate attempt to ignore caste.

Q. When you began your research and teaching, the Marxist historiography was perhaps the most influential. Will you accept the fact that today it is no longer so attractive?

In my writing and thinking I remain greatly influenced by Marxism. Marxist categories may not be so influential today as they used to be earlier but the general ideas about egalitarianism, which derives from Marxism, will continue to influence younger generations.

[Abhay Kumar is pursuing Ph.D at Centre for Historical Studies, JNU.]