Science, History and the Hindutva Brigade

Yesterday a reader and fan of B&W’s emailed me to express her admiration of Meera Nanda’s new article, and her work in general. She also alerted me to another example of scholarship under attack by the Hindutva brigade. I’m extremely glad she did: I was entirely unaware of the campaign against the historian Romila Thapar. Read about it here and here. This whole subject is immensely depressing and dispiritng – it always is dispiriting to see humans determinedly marching backwards, and patting themselves on the back for doing it.

While 72-year-old Thapar’s appointment was greeted with applause by serious students of history, little did anyone realise that acolytes of the Hindutva brand of politics, primarily those in the Indian diaspora, would unleash a vitriolic campaign against her built on name-calling and the disparaging of her professional qualifications…Thapar’s academic work is controversial with the Hindutva lobby because it is grounded in professional methods of historical investigation, rather than in the pet historical theories of Hindu extremists relying on extrapolation from Sanskrit texts…Thapar’s documentation of early Indian life is at odds with the Hindutva preference, grounded in a regressive Hindu orthodoxy, of seeing India as a purely Hindu civilisation, the political implications of which for contemporary India being obvious.

Nanda also talks about extrapolation from Sanskrit texts, in her case in science, so the connections are obvious, as are the implications for scholarship, independent thought of all kinds, knowledge, truth, public education, democracy. Never mind research or evidence, just consult The Book, be it the Bible or the Koran or Sanskrit texts. Books are excellent things, but infallible books, no.

With the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) assumption of power at the centre in 1998 and its ongoing attempts to remake the educational curriculum in its own chauvinistic image gaining momentum, intellectuals and academic positions at odds with the Sangh Parivar’s view of history have come under attack under various pretexts. The BJP has pursued a concerted effort to malign and delegitimise scholars and intellectuals at odds with its view of India’s past.

Well, if B&W can do anything at all to throw a monkey-wrench into that effort, that alone will justify our existence.

Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of the new intolerance is the official sanction it receives through ministers and leaders of academic institutions which have been unscrupulously and ruthlessly saffronised, including universities, councils of historical and social science research, and the National Council for Educational Training and Research. Soon after the BJP took over the Indian Council of Historical Research, it banned volumes in the Towards Freedom project edited by distinguished historians Sumit Sarkar and K N Panikkar. NCERT has revised social science textbooks in a blatantly communal manner.

It’s all really very alarming (all the more so of course given the weapons the BJP has at its disposal). Rewriting history, down the memory hole, banning volumes of a history project – it all makes playful attitudes toward truth and universalism seem about as fun and useful as playing with gelignite.

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