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Mainstream, VOL LIII No 6, January 31, 2015 - Republic Day Special

Rewriting History for Political Gains

Saturday 31 January 2015, by Suranjita Ray

History writing has always been a subject of debate and revision. It is an ongoing process and there can be no final writing of history. However, rewriting history for political gains is what one needs to be concerned. The attempts of political parties across ideological divides to make a certain writing of Indian history as dominant not only reflect their narrow political interests but also obstruct any comprehensive understanding of India’s history. In the context of commemorating the 125th birth anniversary of Jawaharlal Nehru, the debate over Nehru vs Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel generated by the Congress party and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has created an unnecessary controversy. Subramanian Swamy’s proclamations that ‘it isimportant to resize the stature that Nehru enjoys in Indian history in order to match the reality of his achievement’, ‘The mess that Kashmir is in today can be attributed to Nehru’s lack of national vision’, ‘As a nation builder, Nehru was a complete failure’ and his ‘call for burning Indian history books written by Nehruvian historians’ (Swamy, 2014: 9) needs to be understood beyond the allegations made by Digvijaya Singh that the call ‘is part of a larger conspiracy by the Sangh Parivar to underplay the contribution of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in India’s history’. (Singh, 2014: 9) Whether Nehru was more important than Patel or vice versa is asking a wrong question in the first place. It curtails the freedom to analyse the contents in a comparative, contextual, and comprehensive perspective that makes history and other disciplines in social science relevant. Legitimising a particular way of writing or rewriting history as dominant is a major challenge.

Students of history are trained to analyse major variables that influence the contents of the writings. They are taught to develop an analytical framework to understand the perspectives of the historians (including Nehruvian) alongside the limitations of it. Most often writings in social science based on the values of patriarchal, feudal, and capitalist societies are critiqued from a feminist, Marxist, and subaltern perspective. Similarly, writings that privilege caste hierarchies are analysed from the perspective of Dalits’ or people’s rights. An analytical study can only generate questions and questions of the right kind become important in debates. Therefore writing and rewriting of history (social science) that closes analysis to suit the political agenda needs to be contested.

Need to Reject Grand Theorisation

The need to examine the complexities of the variables, their inter-relations and inter-dependence becomes important to understand their influences on the contents of the writings in history in particular contexts and time periods, despite generalisations. No writer or writing is ideologically neutral. While the influence of both rational and extra-rational variables (behaviour, values, value judgements, perceptions, perspec-tives, interpretations, insights, prejudices, and presuppositions that pre-structure empirical observations) are important, one should be conscious about their limitations. They are subject to changes and revisions across socio-economic and political systems in different political cultures, contexts, time periods, and in responses to the greater challenges. Analysis itself is a discourse which enables understanding of variables and their inter-connections in terms of questioning and investigating rather than accepting the linear progression of societies. Therefore there is a need to reject ‘Grand Theories’ or ‘Universal Theories’ which attempt to totalise knowledge (also argued by the Post-Modernist School). It is critical to reject the deterministic and teleological understanding of historical and socio-political phenomena (supported by the Positivist School who believe in objectivist epistemology).

An analytical study explains in many ways the conscious decision of the writer not only to write what is written, but also to write it in a particular way. And scholars are not simply the passive recipients of the contents and the writer’s perspectives and understandings. It is significant to realign history/social science with the interpretative nature of human cognisance (Post-Positivist School). Thus the methodology to teach history/social science is as important as what is taught in the discipline.

The ongoing research on contemporary history not only privileges interpretative understanding of realities or facts but also its limitations. Interpretative researchers and analysts have therefore drawn on alternative epistemological perspectives, which are also socially and politically constructed and change with the change in time and context. They have moved beyond the static arguments of specific studies to engage in a comparative and rigorous investigation within a larger framework to arrive at a comprehensive understanding. Even to arrive at certain general propositions, it is critical to develop an analytical approach or methodology to evaluate analysis itself and its finer nuances. With the change in time and context there has been a shift from the narrower understanding to indepth analysis that give space to rethink, revisit, reinterpret, recon-ceptualise, and theorise historical writings that takes us towards an adequate understanding. It is significant to rewrite history which privileges a comprehensive analysis that contests the universal or dominant ideology, perspective, approach, and theory.

Institutions that are affiliated to a particular ideology have published writings influenced by such ideologies. But, freedom to propagate such writings should not curtail the freedom to analyse them. While institutions reinforce the impact of certain ideas, ideologies, theories, perceptions, and values, they have always remained subject to debates. Since nothing is constant, the changing nature of conflicts and contestation of ideas, values, and perceptions that mediate our understanding of reality become important. Therefore the need to analyse remains uncontested despite differences on the methodologies to analyse.

Updating history should in no way exclude contributions of Nehru and the writings by Nehruvian historians. How to teach correct history, determining what correct history is, and the freedom to analyse should be left to the scholars of the discipline. The Right-wing agenda of rewriting history and the call for burning history books by Nehruvian historians adds to the increasing intolerance of opposition and alternative perspectives. Such attempts will destruct or deconstruct creative thinking and comprehensive understanding. Banning writing, publishing, reading, and understanding of alternative ideologies, thoughts, and philosophies is the worst form of domination that one has experienced in a democratic state. Political parties should restrict such attempts despite their ideological biases and narrow political interests.

It is critical to understand that no comprehen-sive analysis is possible in mutually exclusive frameworks. Social science has always engaged with debates that include divergent, plural, and multiple viewpoint or perspectives and inter-pretations that weave together a holistic understanding. Contributions of Patel and Veer Savarkar and his book The Indian War of Independence—1857’ (Swamy, 2014: 9) are important and cannot be ignored. But such acknowledge-ments should not disregard the contributions of Nehru. The increasing assertions of Dalits and their identity made the writings of Dr B.R. Ambedkar as well as writings on his philosophy and ideology important in the course curriculum of social sciences. It is significant to note that inclusion of Ambedkar’s contributions and his works did not call for burning the textbooks which excluded the latter. Students are often taught to engage in a comparative analysis of the contributions of Mahatma Gandhi and Ambedkar. However, this does not (should not) encourage to engage with debates that undermine the contributions of either. Such debates will only disable a comprehensive understanding. Both Gandhi and Ambedkar need to be understood in specific contexts that made them relevant despite their differences. It is significant to locate history writings in such contexts and a great source of rewriting history is to bring rigorous analysis at its centre. Thus a comparative-historical research on writings of historians and their contributions reveals that different perspectives are important rather than any ‘Grand Theory’ based on overlapping commonalities.

A Tribute to the National Leaders

A real tribute to the freedom fighters and national leaders would be to respect their values which acknowledged the differences in principles and ideologies, yet believed in inclusiveness to work together towards a consensus in the interest of the ‘nation’. It is the mutual respect which they had for each other that made them national leaders. The strength of Patel lay in curbing his ego and working with Nehru. (Visvanathan, 2014a: 8) Nehru and Patel had their divergences but on issues of national importance they worked in convergence and congruence and not against each other. (See also J. Hasan cited in Gandhi, 2014: 14) Therefore it is significant to understand that neither Gandhi nor Nehru nor Patel, can be appropriated by any political party as they stood for a common cause, worked out a consensus, and were above the narrow ideological and personal divides. (See also Pandita, 2014: 14; Gandhi, 2014: 14)

Freedom fighters and their sacrifices are above acknowledgements and celebrations by the political parties. Thus, earmarking Rs. 20 crores for the yearlong commemoration of Nehru’s 125th birth anniversary will not make Nehru more important, nor will declarations about his failure as a national leader undermine his legacy. Similarly building a statue of Patel larger than that of the Statue of Liberty will by no means reduce the relevance of Nehru’s contributions. The conscious decision not to mention Nehru in the BJP’s manifesto for the 2014 general elections while referring to the freedom struggle (which read as ‘India’s Freedom Struggle which was inspired by Tilak, Gandhi, Aurobindo, Patel, Bose and others had a clear vision of civilisational consciousness of India’), and the conscious decision not to invite the honourable Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, to the conference organised by the Congress party to commemorate the 125th birth anniversary of Nehru, are personal and political, and need to be condemned. Organising the Run for Unity (National Unity Day) on October 31 to mark the birth anniversary of Patel (despite November 19, Indira Gandhi’s birth anniversary, being celebrated as the National Integration Day and October 31 being her martyrdom day) have only led to an unnecessary Patel vs Indira debate. (See also Gandhi, 2014: 14)

Nation-building was important for all the national leaders and the relevance of their contributions cannot be confined to such celebrations. Mahatma Gandhi’s contributions cannot be reduced to Swachh Bharat Abhiyan or wearing of Khadi. It cannot be reduced ‘to a fragment, to little discourses about drainage, sanitation and cleanliness...to textbook civics and social work, to a civic without ethic or politics. It is one of the most profound acts of depoliticisation.’ (Visvanathan, 2014a: 8) Neither can Nehru ‘be seen merely as an object of history, a fragment of policy. He was a dream, a hope, a claim to innocence, an aesthetic which gave to modernity a touch of elegance.’ (Visvanathan, 2014b: 8) It is significant to revitalise the need to revisit the contributions of Nehru as the more one dissociates from the writings of Indian history by Nehruvian historians the narrower will be the under-standing of India’s history. Nehru’s works, Glimpses of World History and A Discovery of India will continue to remain relevant given the colonial history of India. His vision of a new India was critical to deal with the urgent issues central to the very existence of the independent country—ranging from external, defence to internal stability and cohesion. As an architect of the Planning Commission, National Develop-ment Council, Community Development Planning, his thrust on science and modernity and vision for a ‘socialistic pattern of society’ became the guiding force for development that prioritised democratic freedom and social justice. Nehru visualised peaceful co-existence with neighbours, abstention from military aggression, the Non-Aligned Movement, and believed in creating a more dynamic, modern, egalitarian society through an economic strategy based on industrial and agrarian reforms, economic reconstruction and planning, establishing secular ideas, abolishing untouchability, improving status of women, and was concerned for the poor and underprivileged. As a humanist he upheld human dignity against injustice and exploitation. These are values which will be cherished by human civilisation across ages and cannot be confined to the contents in the textbooks of history.

Ideology of the national leaders and strong political leadership is important to remake the character of the state. Across the world with the shift in the global balance of power and the absence of an alternative ideology (with the collapse of erstwhile USSR), the ideology of the Keynesian welfare state, which dominated the 1970s, declined. The neoliberal ideology of the 1980s was imposed as the dominant strategy for development. In India the mid-1980s saw the end of Nehruvian socialism with a major shift from rigorous state-controlled laws and regulated economy to economic liberalisation and greater privatisation. One could see a spectacular change with the emergence of the New Rights School as a dominant ideology which like the Public Choice School campaigned for a reduced role of the state vis-a-vis the market. The public sector units making losses could no longer be justified on socio-economic grounds and most policy analysts believed that India would benefit from a rational policy shift towards fewer controls and more open and competitive market economy. (See also Girdner, 1987) India experienced increasing joint colla-boration with the capitalist countries on computers, electronics and telecommunication sector, meteorology, science and technology, entrepreneurship, free trade zones, export promotion zones, market openings and foreign linkages. As free markets by themselves do not establish fair competition, the powerful state was supposed to intervene to provide a legal framework to maintain law and order including enforcement of contracts, property rights, pursuing appropriate macro-economic policies with respect to exchange rates, interest rates, wage rates, price controls, and trade policies. Thus the capitalist model of development became important and privatisation was legitimised as inevitable for development despite the warning by Rajni Kothari that there will be two Indias—one modern having access to resources and the other, the deprived, left behind to bear the brunt of exploitation and oppression that is inherent in such a process of growth thereby increasing polarisation.

It is critical to understand that major deviations from the Gandhian and Nehruvian economic strategies in contemporary times cannot be seen as failure of their vision for the nation. The restoration of a prosperous market economy does not make Gandhi and Nehru less relevant. A comparative analysis of such deviations enables an understanding of the underlying causes of increasing inequalities, disparities and deprivations of certain sections of society in the contemporary developmental state despite economic growth and development. Therefore the legacy of the national leaders cannot be questioned for short-term political gains. ‘Whosoever is in power, Nehru’s memory must be kept alive in the interest of our democratic and secular values. Students of Indian history, on the other hand, will benefit from his writings, which embrace the creative thrust and splendour of the Continental and Indian civilisation.’ (M. Hasan, 2014: 8)


Therefore no writing of history can be subjugated to the monopoly of the mainstream ideology which discards an alternative perspective. Dominant theories cannot be imposed ostensibly to legitimise the ideology of political parties. Social science can neither be institutionalised to a discourse that is insensitive to debates and analytical studies nor can it become inimical to the freedom of interpretation and understanding. Thus legitimising a hegemonic political culture which supresses the democratic space from engaging with alternative perspectives needs to be contested.


Gandhi, Jatin (2014): ‘Beyond Appropriation’ in The Hindu, November 16.

Girdner, Eddie J. (1987): ‘Economic Liberalisation in India: The New Electronic Policy’ in Asian Survey: a bimonthly review of contemporary Asian affairs, Berkeley, University of California Press, Vol 27, pp. 1188-1204.

Hasan, Mushirul (2014): ‘Nehru: The writer, the historian’ in The Hindu, November 13.

Hasan, Zoya (2014): cited in ‘Beyond Appropriation’ by Jatin Gandhi in The Hindu, November 16.

Pandita, Rahul (2014): ‘An anniversary turns into a tug-of- war’ in The Hindu, November 16.

Singh, Digvijaya (2014): ‘History, battleground for Politics’ in The Hindu, October 10.

Swamy, Subramanian (2014): ‘History and the Nationalist Project’ in The Hindu, October 11.

Visvanathan, Shiv (2014a): ‘Old Repressions, new tyrannies’ in The Hindu, October 30.

Visvanathan, Shiv (2014b): ‘Poetics of a nation: remembering Nehru’ in The Hindu, November 15.

Suranjita Ray teaches Political Science at Daulat Ram College, University of Delhi. She can be contacted at suranjitaray_66@yahoo.co.in.