– By N.S. Rajaram
‘Saffronisation? has no meaning
There is now a heated outcry—it can'treally be called a debate—by some ‘eminent historians? for desaffronising history textbooks written under the previous administration. Supposedly the NCERT texts written when Dr Murli Manohar Joshi was the HRD Minister give an overly Hindu perspective on history. This is what these eminent historians are calling ‘saffronisation?, which they want eliminated. Does this charge have any substance? I cannot speak for medieval or modern history, but as far as ancient Indian civilisation goes, the term “saffronisation” is meaningless, because Hinduism or Sanatana Dharma (and its offshoots, like Buddhism) is the only source we have to serve as framework for interpreting ancient texts and archaeology. To ‘desaffronise?, are we to read the Vedas as Christian scripture or treat Harappan remains as Islamic monuments?
This is the kind of absurdity that we land into when we substitute slogans for facts and reason. A more subtle example is the misrepresentation of the word ‘Arya? and the nature of the Aryan civilisation. These eminent historians, led by Irfan Habib, charge that suggesting an indigenous origin for the Aryan civilisation somehow constitutes ‘saffronisation?. So, according to this eminent historian, and others of his school, we should attribute the Aryan civilisation—which is more properly called the Vedic civilisation (including its offshoots)—to foreign migrants. This is nothing but the revival of the discredited, divisive colonial model based on the infamous Aryan invasion theory. This colonial offspring is now the favoured child of the secularist brigade.
This gives a clue to the real motive behind the cry for ‘desaffronisation?: to revive the discredited old model of the Aryan invasion, now being repackaged as Aryan migration. The goal is the same—to make the Vedic civilisation non-Indian in origin and keep it separated from Harappan archaeology. The ‘eminent historians? hide the fact that this division of attributing the Harappan civilisation to the Dravidians and the Vedic language and literature to the invading Aryans served British colonial interests. In fact, the British made no secret of their goal to present themselves as the later and ‘better? brothers of the Aryans who invaded India. Here is what Stanley Baldwin, Prime Minister of Great Britain, once said in the House of Commons (1929):
This is the kind of absurdity that we land into when we substitute slogans for facts and reason. A more subtle example is the misrepresentation of the word ‘Arya? and the nature of the Aryan civilisation.
“Ages and ages ago, there sat, side by side, the ancestors of the English, Rajputs and Brahmins. Now, after ages, …the two branches of the great Aryan ancestry have again been brought together by Providence… . By establishing British rule in India, God said to the British, “I have brought you and the Indians together after a long separation, not in order that you should lord over them, or that you should exploit them, but in order that you should recognise your kinship with them… .” It is your duty to raise them to their own level as quickly as possible, and work together; brothers as you are, for the evolution of humanity… .”
And here is what Max Muller, seen as a great lover of India wrote in his Autobiography: “Lord Derby, then Secretary of State for India, declared that the scholars who had discovered and proved the close relationship between Sanskrit and English, had rendered more valuable service to the [British] government of India than many a regiment.” Needless to say, Max Muller was generously paid by the British government for this contribution.
All this ‘scholarship? was part of the agenda to divide the people of India into antagonistic groups under labels like Aryan and Dravidian, to facilitate colonial rule and conversion to Christianity. The most influential figure in this was probably Robert Caldwell, bishop of Tirunelveli, who wrote the highly influential Comparative Grammar of the Dravidian or South Indian Family of Languages. First published in 1856, it continues its influence today, especially in Tamil Nadu. This is due less to its scholarly content than to the fact that it became the political manifesto of Dravidian politicians, who not infrequently engaged in vulgar conduct towards innocent people that were labelled as descendants of Aryan oppressors.
Needless to say, the Aryan civilisation of ancient India is not the same as the ‘Aryan civilisation? concocted by such characters, any more than the Nazis who also claimed to be Aryans. India's‘eminent historians?, who came to dominate the scene after Independence rarely took issue with this disgraceful chapter in Indian historiography. And now they are raising the cry of ‘saffronisation?, as a new generation of scholars has gone on to rubbish this European fabrication still favoured by secularist worthies, including the ‘eminent historians?.
Their recent conduct gives a clue to another motive: they want their own textbooks, based on such disreputable scholarship, to be brought back! This way they can continue to get royalties from the sale of their books, and save also their reputations. It is after all a matter of record that in the nearly 50 years of domination, these ‘eminent historians? have contributed next to nothing to ancient history. One look at the latest edition on early India by one of the most eminent of these historians shows that it ignores the two most important developments of recent decades—the discovery of the Vedic Sarasvati and the Vedic-Harappan identity. All it is, is a rehash of colonial authors like A.L. Basham and Vincent Smith. If we want bring back obsolete texts, why not bring these originals back instead of their weak imitations? At least they are in better English.
Santayana on historical revision
One of the arguments offered is that we need to recognise India'scomposite culture. Of course, we do, but in the proper historical context. Indian culture has always been composite in nature. Vedic texts, especially the Rigveda, represent an ideal meant for the elite. There were always popular practices that found outlet in traditions like tantra and other heterodox systems. Even within the Vedic tradition, in the Atharvaveda and the Taittiriya Samhita, we have elements that did not strictly adhere to the Vedic orthodoxy. Dravidian rulers also never excluded themselves from the Vedic Aryan fold, as terms like Aiyya, Iyer and many others clearly demonstrate. Also, recent studies by David Frawley and this writer suggest that the proto Vedic culture of the south, especially in the coastal regions might be older, and the source of the Vedic culture that reached its culmination in the Sarasvati valley.
So the issue is not really the composite nature of the Indian culture, which no one denies, but attempts to remove the contribution of Indians by attributing the Vedas also to foreign origin, like Christianity and Islam. This way, India would have no civilisation of its own, which is the Marxist dogma and obsession. This is unhistorical.
No reasonable person can be against review and revision. After all, all knowledge is transient and history is no exception. No less a philosopher than George Santayana once said: “History is always written wrong; it needs always to be re-written.” But we cannot allow slogans to stifle debate and sneak in obsolete knowledge in discredited textbooks. If we were to follow such a practice in science, we would have physics texts that ignore Relativity and quantum physics and biology texts that reject Darwin'sTheory of Evolution, which is what some Christian fundamentalist outfits are trying to do in American schools in the name of creationism. In science this is called obscurantism.
The secularist call to bring back old theories, in books written mostly by themselves, is no different. It is obscurantism in the guise of ‘desaffronisation?.