Many of us expected that the new BJP regime in Delhi will try to rewrite Indian history from a hardline Hindutva perspective (as opposed to the softline Hindutva of the Congress and of most leading Indian academies). But it still hurts to see it come so soon and in such a doltish package: the appointment of Yellapragada Sudershan Rao as chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research (a funding agency for historical reseach in India, ICHR is to history what the NSF is to science in the U.S.). Sample the excerpt below from Rao's interview in Outlook and read historian Romila Thapar's take on his appointment.
YS Rao: There is a certain view that the Mahabharata or the Ramayana are myths. I don’t see them as myths because they were written at a certain point of time in history. They are important sources of information in the way we write history. What we write today may become an important source of information for the future in the future. When analysed, of course, they could be declared to be true or false. History is not static. It belongs to the people, it’s made by the people. Similarly, the Ramayana is true for people...it’s in the collective memory of generations of Indians. We can’t say the Ramayana or the Mahabharata are myths. Myths are from a western perspective.
What does that mean?
For us, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are true accounts of the periods in which they were written.
But shouldn’t the writing of history be rooted in historical evidence and research?
Western schools of thought look at material evidence of history. We can’t produce material evidence for everything. India is a continuing civilisation. To look for evidence would mean digging right though the hearts of villages and displacing people. We only have to look at the people to figure out the similarities in their lives and the depiction in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. For instance, the Ramayana mentions that Rama had travelled to Bhadrachalam (in Andhra Pradesh). A look at the people and the fact that his having lived there for a while is in the collective memory of the people cannot be discounted in the search for material evidence. In continuing civilisations such as ours, the writing of history cannot depend only on archaeological evidence. We have to depend on folklore too.
Or sample a 2007 blog post in which Rao, displaying his grasp of Indian history, wrote that the caste system "was working well in ancient times and we do not find any complaint from any quarters against it. It is often misinterpreted as an exploitative social system for retaining economic and social status of certain vested interests of the ruling class." Nevermind that the Buddhists, Jains, and Carvakas utterly rejected it in ancient times. He thinks "Varna leads one to moksha (the liberation of the soul) while caste system is meant for the material and human resource management of a civilized society." In RSS-style baiting, he writes, "Most of the questionable social customs in the Indian society, as pointed out by the English educated Indian intellectuals and the Western scholars, could be traced to the period of Muslim rule in north India spanning over seven centuries." If this is how he intends "to think about India’s history from an Indian perspective", we are in trouble!