RSS's Version of History Colonial, Attempts to Eliminate Plurality of Indian Heritage

October 7, 2016

Five ‘M’s colour the RSS Reading of History, Mill, Macaulay, Max Mueller, Marx and Muslims: KM Shrimali

K.M. Shrimali, eminent historian of the early Indian period speaks to Teesta Setalvad of Communalism Combat on the dangerous project, of colonial origin, afoot in India under direct guidance of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)

The attack on the essence of History, as a discipline, the spirit of inquiry and reason guiding the seeking of evidence: K.M. Shrimali

The political aim is clear, just as the British Colonialists did, perpetuate a an othering and hatred for all that is Muslim: K.M. Shrimali

Religion has always been part of society, ever-changing and evolving: K.M. Shrimali

The Five ‘M's colour the RSS Reading of History, Mill, Macaulay, Max Mueller and Muslims writing history. And even the image of nationalism that they try to project, ironically, comes from some of the fundamental postulates of the colonial view of writing ancient history in particular: : K..M. Shrimali

The interview is a joint production of Communalism Combat and Newsclick


Teesta Setalvad: Hello, and greetings. Communalism Combat and Newsclick are very privileged today to have with us eminent historian of ancient Indian history Prof K.M. Shrimali sahab will speak to us about the discipline itself, the challenges for the history teachers and the history learners in the midst of what India is facing politically, and what we are all facing as citizens globally. Hello Mr. Shrimali, thank you so much to have you with us.
Prof. K M Shrimali: Thank you, thank you. My pleasure!

Teesta Setalvad: There is so much to talk about when it comes to the discipline of history, so where shall we begin? What are the immediate threats and challenges to the discipline in India today?
Prof. K M Shrimali: I think the challenges that we historians have been facing in the more recent past come largely from the specific conception of history that this present political dispensation has really imbibed. And, one on which this dispensation is working on for many many years.
The crux of this dispensation vis a vis history is to kill the spirit of inquiry, to suppress the dissenting voices, to suppress alternative opinions and make a serious attempt to homogenise Indian culture. That, I think, is the biggest threat that we historians have to combat in so far as, discipline has always worked in the direction which has sustained the idea of India through the decades that we know.

Teesta Setalvad: You are also working on three books at the moment, I am told. All of them (are) coming out soon in Hindi, and one of the books deals with Prachin Dharmo Ka Itihaas – meaning religions in ancient India. How does that and the project to homogenise India’s culture work out? Obviously, the (forces that rule us) will question this very project.
Prof. K M Shrimali: Let me try to define what I have called the historians’ dharma. And if you want to really comprehend the nuances of that, I would say the just as the tantrik system sustained itself on the panch makars,: Madya, Matsya, Mansa, Mudra, Maithuna, talking about fish-eating, meat, eating, drinking, sex and physical activity etc; similarly, the threat the historians are facing from the RSS’s position on history stems from their five ‘M’s.

Teesta Setalvad: Which are..?
Prof. K M Shrimali: These five ‘M’s for RSS are Mill – (James Mill), Macaulay, Max Mueller, Marx and Muslims.

Teesta Setalvad: This is interesting.
Prof. K M Shrimali: I would say that in many ways these five ‘M’s have conditioned their view of writing history. And even the image of nationalism that they try to project, ironically, comes from some of the fundamental postulates of the colonial view of writing ancient history in particular.

Teesta Setalvad: It’s not Indian at all.
Prof. K M Shrimali: It’s not Indian at all. To give you the first illustration, the periodisation itself – you talked about Hindu as the ancient/early Indian period. The periodisation itself, the basis of that periodisation on which RSS view thrives, is coming from James Mill who tried to periodise Indian history into a Hindu period, Muslim period and ironically again – not the Christian period – but the British period. The crux of this tripartite division is resting on what Max Mueller tried to defend. Of the numerous works that Max Mueller did and produced, I will take up just one small book, which is called India : What can it teach us? I am picking it up because that was a work based on seven lectures that he delivered in 1882 in Cambridge to those people who were aspiring to come to India as civil servants. And it is in these seven lectures that he is trying to glorify what in modern terminology can be called, the Golden period of the Hindus – the glorious period, the high heritage period of Indian history. It is in this series of lectures that Max Mueller created what today we call ‘the other’. His hatred for the Muslims, his soul idea of India being understood in terms of Aryan superiority, the darkness of the period of the Mughal: the Muslims. He called the period of the Muslims as the ‘inferno’. He is the one, who defined the parameters of us and they. It is from such people that the RSS has derived its inspiration. Take for example the notion of the Aryans as indigenous people. Who gave rise to that? It is people like Colonel Olcott and Madam Blavatsky of the Theosophical Society. It is from them that they (the RSS) have taken up this idea.

Teesta Setalvad: So coming back sir to your work and your expertise on the early or ancient Indian period, how do the postulates of the colonial historians, appropriated now more viciously or vigorously by the RSS, actually sit with the historical evidence we have which is completely to the contrary?
Prof. K M Shrimali: Well, I would say that I have been privileged a daft to teach quite a few courses on history of Indian religions at the postgraduate level. And I have done that over a period of more than four decades.

Teesta Setalvad: 44 years.
Prof. K M Shrimali: More than 4 decades, yes, 44 years. And the essence that I have tried to imbibe through my teaching about the way in which one can understand Indian religions is to really see them in historical perspective. To see religion not as something which is exclusively standing somewhere – an autonomous institutions such as that, no! It’s very much part of the society. And evolving all the time. One notion that the colonialist handed over to us, (is) that Indian culture has always been spiritualist, metaphysical and has nothing to do this world. That can be really put upside down completely. Because if you try to understand the evolution of Indian religions, it demolishes very convincingly the myth of the static society of India which, again, was created by these colonialist writers.

Teesta Setalvad: Can you just illustrate that for the young listeners?
Prof. K M Shrimali: Well, one example that can always be cited is that Indra – who is supposedly the hero of the Rigveda, one who is described there as Gopati: lord of cattle. He becomes Indra of the Veda plough by the time of the later Vedic period. I know for sure that for the RSS people the difference between the early Vedic and the later Vedic doesn’t mean anything, because for them the Vedas are Vedas. Whether you are talking about the Rigveda or Satyaprakash or Swami Dayanand, it’s homogenous as whole (for them). But, that’s not true. For a historian, it is of paramount significance that the moral and special differences are always kept in mind. Without that, you cannot understand the discipline of history. So Indra, who was initially supposedly a leader of the pastoral people is taken over (or appropriated) as a deity by agriculturalists and still subsequently with the growth of new type of land relationships, the kind of land ownership that is vested in lands, Indra becomes bhupati: the lord of the land. So that’s how we can see the evolution of Indian religion happened and needs to be understood.

Teesta Setalvad: Sir, two queries: one is about ancient India again, the ancient period – the entire discovery of the Indus Valley civilisation in the 1920s, which suddenly catapulted us to on the world stage, as it’s a civilisation dating back to 2500 BC. There was no evidence of this earlier and now the desire by the same forces who want to hegemonise culture, to claim some connection between the Vedic period and the period of the Indus Valley Civilisation. How does that sit with historical evidence?  
Prof. K M Shrimali: Well, honestly speaking, this is one area which is very dear to the RSS point of view, because they are interested in pushing back the antiquity of Indian culture as they understand it. I don’t share their view of Indian culture, anyway. So pushing back the antiquity of what they would say the Vedic civilization, and for them the Vedic civilization is the Hindu civilization, and that is for them the Indian civilization and so on. Forgetting about that equation for the time being, but the manner in which these people have been trying to re-write the paradigm is to project the antiquity of the Vedas backwards. I remember as soon as the present political dispensation came to power in 2014, there was a seminar organised in department of Sanskrit in the University of Delhi and the fundamental assumption of that conference – three-day-conference was that Vedas were written around 8000 BC. The Conclusion had already been reached before the conference was held!

Teesta Setalvad: There was no historical inquiry..
Prof. K M Shrimali: There was no historical inquiry about it. It was already decided that this is what we are going to say, so this is not the way of writing history. An another classic example of how these people have tried to manipulate, fabricate, manufacture facts to suit their convenience is the so-called ‘horseplay’, on which Frontline came out with the wonderful feature, Witzel and Farmer had written phenomenally – how with the help of computers they try to convert the unicorn into a horse and try to say that the Harappans knew the horse!.

Teesta Setalvad: Now this has even gone onto the silver screen with Mohenjo Daro: Ashutosh Gowarikar’s film, where again you saw Hrithik Roshan on the horse.
Prof. K M Shrimali: Yes, so the whole idea of pushing that the antiquity of the vedic civilization – making it the earliest civilization earlier than that the Harappans, is something which obviously cannot be sustained by any specific material, if it is (available at all). It’s only their assumption that they are trying to push over that idea.

Teesta Setalvad: Sir, the second query I had related to the ancient period relates to some degree of perception difference between the Aryan the entire question that the Aryan – whether indigenous or not, and the Dravidian history and Dravidian Cultures and the sub-cultures which have also been explored to a large extent by historians, and they seems to be interpretation around Dravidian cultures as well. I don’t know how developed that history has been, has become historically, but there is certainly a lot of discourse around it. If you look at writing of Jyotiba Phule and Ambedkar and others, how does that sit with the discipline of history in terms of how far it has been explored?
Prof. K M Shrimali: I think it would be very unfair to for me at this stage to really talk about that kind of divide because I don’t subscribe to that kind of divide. The whole idea of India of the Aryans and India of the Dravidians is taking some kind of a racist view of the history which is just not sustainable. I think the moving forces in history of humanity have been along the lines of the movement of people across the globe as they have been known through the millennium, and there have been mixtures and inter-mixtures of people from different areas, different regions, of different values, of different cultural systems. So, it is very very difficult indeed to really sustain that kind of a divide that is. I am aware of discourses along those lines, but discourses which I think are not sustainable to a right kind of thinking historian.

Teesta Setalvad: Sir, you mentioned that what the Indian Council for Historical research (ICHR) is doing with the recent article that was published. You had also (been) discussing the recent happenings at the ICHR, and even mentioned the fact that out of the 18 people on the panel, there are a couple of people who were very closely involved with justifying the demolition of the of Babri Masjid – I think Gupta and Lal. And, there were other four-five who were kind of aggressively involved in discrediting other historians, who are independent and who are recognised as good historians. What exactly is happening at the Indian Council for Historic Research today – a premier body founded for historical research of the country, what is happening there just now?
Prof. K M Shrimali: I will put it very briefly to underline the point. Under the present dispensation at the ICHR, right from the chairman down to the council, it’s a collection of people most of whom, as I know them, are not even proper historians. And they are shamelessly carrying out the agenda which is the agenda of the RSS. They are just not bothered about what people are saying or what professional historians have been talking about, writing about. They are indeed going ahead with that. Two examples can be cited in this context: one is as soon as the present chairman took charge of the organisation, he invited a gentleman called – Balgangadhar to deliver the Abul Kalam Azad memorial lecture and it is in that lecture that the speaker said, “What’s the good use of having history as a discipline? It’s a fetish. If you have Ramayana and Mahabharata, that’s good enough. You don’t need to study history!” I am being told by some people within the establishment that the kind of books which have been purchased in the library, nowadays, are also been monitored very closely. Anything, which is not really in tune with the RSS point of view, is not easily purchased in the system there.

Teesta Setalvad: How can this be reversed? I mean, this is a serious threat. This is very serious threat to as you have said – to the discipline, to thinking India, to our future. I mean how can this be resisted when you have a government in power determined on destroying a discipline like this?
Prof. K M Shrimali: Well, I as a professional historian, I can only say that we will keep on doing our work and keep on questioning these people. And, I’ll appeal to all my friends and colleagues and students, who could really be manning the show in the years to come, to be up to the mark and be on their feet, and resist such forces which are against the voices of reason. To my mind, history is a discipline of reason, not of faith.

Teesta Setalvad: Sir, within weeks of this government coming to power, a couple of statements found an echo, (which had been) even in the election campaign of the prime minister candidate. Just a few examples I recall: one is that you know, and they can be laughed away, but they are very very serious. For instance where you locate Nalanda or Taxila, whether you talked about plastic surgery being present in ancient Indian times and give the example of Ganesha’s head, lord Ganesha’s head, or you say that you know the fact that Kunti and the way she gave birth to children suggest that stem cell research existed in ancient times. Now, we can laugh at these because you have the benefit of a more thorough historical subject study, you know, as a student of history. But, what frightens me is that a man like Dinanath Batra was part of that Shiksha Bachao Andolan who was also responsible for the getting Wendy Doniger’s book pulped..
Prof. K M Shrimali: ..and also getting the removal of the essay Three Hundred Ramayanas by Ramanujan taken off the syllabus of the Delhi University..

Teesta Setalvad: That’s right, exactly. Under a different political regime. This man, today, has authored these nine-part supplementary texts in Gujarat which are reaching 4,00,000 students and similarly, also Haryana: these are two states where Batra supplementary text are being used. Now, if you look at what the Prime Minister said – these four examples I gave, and you will have a close reading, I read those books in Gujarati, look at those books. That’s exactly what Dinanath Batra is talking about: stem cell research in ancient times, plastic surgery in ancient times, Vayumaan that is aerodynamics in ancient India, so obviously this is the history that is taught at the RSS shakha. And you know what really worries me: 4,00,000 kids in Gujarat, thousands of students in Haryana; tomorrow, it could be many other states in the country. What will this do to critical inquiry and scientific temper that you were talking about?
Prof. K M Shrimali: Very interesting question, and it needs some detailed explanation. Now let us take the very recent development within the ministry of human resources development. They have released not the full report of the new education policy, but about 44 pages of what they called some inputs for the draft of the New Education Policy 2016. If you look at the preamble of that and some of the contents of the inputs, one is left with very little doubt as to where exactly are they heading. They do talk about the rich heritage, they do talk about high values, they do talk about national unity, and they do talk about glorious India’s past etc etc., and the need to create space for the dissemination of Indian culture – very lofty ideas. Nobody should have any dispute with that. But, the moment you ask certain questions: whose heritage, which past, who’s past etc. etc., then you realise that the cat is getting out of the bag. Because the moment you get into this act of seeking answers to this questions the kind of the hints that you get there in the preamble in the content of the drafts input, you know full well that they are focusing only on the preservation of the glorious ancient Indian past of the Hindus – only a section of the Hindus. They are not concerned about what the medieval period did, and in their terminology it is the period of the Muslims, which is not to be seen anywhere. Nalanda and Taxila are mentioned within created chronology, there is no part where would you find reference to madrasah at Bidar or the madrasah at Hauz Khas in Delhi.

Don’t you deserve a mention of the huge library of Dara Shikoh, which was a representative of the confluence of the Hindus and the Muslims, which has numerous translations of the Upanishads. And the kind of growth that Sanskrit literature had even during the times of the Mughals and so and so. No reference to that?  Sanskrit is to be taught at all levels: schools and colleges, universities and even in IITs. If from Sanskrit they want to teach the development of technology, and that’s the kind of examples that come to our mind what kind of technology and science and scientific temper they would like to inculcate and evolve? And if at all it has to be done through Sanskrit isn’t there a case for Arabic and Persian? Pali? Prakrit? The kind of scientific developments that were achieved in the times of the Mughals, in the times of the sultans and the Arabic writings and its contribution to science and mathematics? They are not to be found anywhere at all. So it’s a very skewed version of history and skewed version of Indian heritage that they are trying to evolve, and this is indeed part of an overall agenda. They have always been concerned about one people, one nation, one culture, not a multiplicity of ideas, multiplicity of cultures, multiplicity of people, multi languages, multi ethnicities, multi linguistics. This is not the plurality of Indian culture, the plurality which has been the bedrock of the idea of India –not in their view of India.

Teesta Setalvad: Last two and a half years, cow vigilantism, cow taliban, this kind of complete terror on the ground mobs have unleashed in the name of what you are eating, how you dress, what you think and how you speak and the love jihad, ghar wapasi. This kind of non-state actors (are) with the full impunity granted by the state. Connecting these developments to your area of research and work – ancient India, particularly because of the whole discourse around vegetarianism and non-vegetarianism.
Historians have said again and again that locating vegetarianism in ancient India is ludicrous. There is evidence to the contrary in the Vedas and yet these forces want to kind of impose the vegetarianism in the name of purity. So how would you locate this campaign against non-vegetarianism, against beef-eating, protection of the cow etc.?

Prof. K M Shrimali: Well, obviously those who have been watching the scene over the years know full well that there is more politics in it than they actual concern about the cow protection per say, and beef-eating is uncontestable as far as historians are concerned. There is no point in reminding ourselves of phenomenal evidences that are available to us right from the Vedic texts. And we know for certain that Hindus eat beef even today in different parts of India and that’s a reason why the laws against beef-eating are not.. the cow slaughter are not available (or rather possible) in Goa, Assam and Bengal and so on and so forth. Also, Kerala. There is obviously politics behind this, which – to my mind is similar to the kind of politics that they did on the Ram janmabhoomi issue, where religion of faith was less of a factor and acquisition of power was a greater force to really mobilise people along the so called nationalist urge. It was all phony nationalism, it was a struggle for power that was being conducted and the cow vigilantism is part of the agenda which is being carried out. I have no doubts about it.
Teesta Setalvad: This has been absolutely fascinating discussion sir, and I think we covered a wide range of subjects if you think as anything else that I have not brought up and you like to touch upon, please (go ahead). Otherwise, I think, we have covered a wide range of subjects.

Prof. K M Shrimali: Well, I think I hope people would be interested in taking the such ideas seriously and for me, the most important thing is that people should really imbibe – not just those who are studying history, but Indian people, what they should really be imbibing from discourses such as these that you need to be inquisitive, that you need to be asking questions, that you need not be afraid of what is being passed on as religious and sacred.
Teesta Setalvad: That is fantastic and a very very good note on which, we’re to end the interview. Thank you Prof. Shrimali, Thank you very very much

Prof. K M Shrimali: Thank you, it’s my pleasure.