Why Vikram Sampath finds himself in the line of fire for probing suppressed histories


With the British Empire at its zenith, and surprisingly at a time when India’s freedom struggle had turned more and more assertive, generations of Indian school children grew up reading Romesh Chandra Dutt’s (1848-1909) History of India which began with this stanza: “Mother and Motherland are greater than heaven” (Janani Janmabhumischa Swargadwapi gariyasi).

Dutt was one of the iconic intellectuals of his time, an outstanding writer who wrote in both Bengali and English, a member of the so-called “heaven-born service” (second batch of Indian recruits), an economist, a historian and a nationalist, who became the president of Indian National Congress twice.

Imagine a scholar today who writes a history text incorporating those immortal lines. Immediately there would be an orchestrated howl of protest all over the globe about the spectre of Hindu majoritarianism and the imminent destruction of Indian pluralism and democracy. I have always felt that both Raja Rammohan Roy and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee would have faced rough weather at the hands of India’s ‘secular’ political class for their Tuhfat-ul-Muwahiddin and Anandmath, respectively.

The Nehruvian order, its political culture, education system and conduct of foreign affairs were all shaped by this mindset. Given this source of inspiration, it was an unjust expectation to have an authentic history of India. Generations of India’s youth suffered and missed out what was the best in our society and culture. While there may be more than one opinion on the real worth of India’s public sector economy in the post-Independence era, there is not an iota of doubt about the negative impact of the public sector historians on the younger minds.

We all know how some of the greatest historians such as Sir Jadunath Sarkar were treated in the Nehruvian system. The academic curriculum in historical/social sciences in India had been shaped by the Khilafat mindset (that fostered the genocide of Hindus in Kerala by the Moplahs), MN Roy’s Historic Role of Islam, and Jawaharlal Nehru’s writings, particularly The Discovery of India.

Another dominant influence was the official narrative as propagated by the governments in independent India, both Central and state, regarding the so-called Aryan invasion, Hindu-Buddhist conflict, Islamic invasions, the nature of their rule and the sufferings of Hindus during that period, Hindu-Muslim relations, India’s struggle for freedom from the British colonial rule, the role of revolutionaries, causes and responsibility for Partition, among others.

In 1950-51, KM Munshi talked about the “inadequacy of our so-called history” and wanted India’s past to be “described by her sons, but also that the world might catch a glimpse of her soul as Indians see it”. Munshi, it is needless to say, had no takers in the state-controlled academia.

As Ramesh Chandra Majumdar had suggested, “It is thus quite clear that both from purely academic and practical standpoints the plain duty of a historian of India is to reveal the truth about the communal relations in the past, without being influenced by any extraneous factor.” Since honest academic consideration did not matter to India’s post-Independence ruling class, we had to swallow many absurdities like a Wahabi fanatic like Bakht Khan being presented as a later version of Shivaji and earlier version of Subhas Chandra Bose, and rabid Islamists like Titu Meer and Moplah leaders as revolutionary freedom fighters!

It was this version of “scientific” history that was passed on to generations of our students and the people at large. That explains as why India has failed miserably to fight Islamic terrorism and expansionism and prevent the persecution of Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Christian, and Parsi minorities in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh for over seven decades.

The Indian society, especially its educational administrators, need to be told that the so-called “progressive” historians happen to be an “ideological front for pan-Islamic fundamentalists, and in this lofty mission they have the support of the Nehruvians. Hence they have to flaunt their anti-Hindu credentials and that explains their desperate attempt to repeatedly rub the Hindu psyche by referring to their alleged fondness for beef in the nebulous past, or rationalise every indignity suffered by the Hindus”, as I had written in an article in the Hindustan Times on 23 January 2002.

I had further pointed out that this crass attitude was “the by-product of a ‘wounded civilisation’ and the resultant slavish mentality, that was nurtured to provide the essential mindset for a political ambience and voting behavior under the Nehruvian set-up”.

For this “academic” cabal, every anti-Hindu view and negationism of every kind even by inconsequential foreigners are good enough to be promoted by sarkari funding. “Others” not toeing the path earmarked by these eminences are to be guillotined. That explains why many scholars from the “other” camp are not promoted and even reviewed in India. And when some books are “lucky” to get their “kind” attention, they are simply trashed.

For example, one may cite the example of Vikram Sampath’s highly acclaimed two volumes of Savarkar biography. Unfortunately, these critics fail to notice that Sampath had got the manuscripts reviewed by many historians/writers and some of the most capable people in India’s public life. A cursory look may confirm that all of them do not belong to one ideological camp. Sampath is thorough in his handling of the sources, both secondary and primary.

Among the few biographies I have had the occasion to read, Robert Kanigel’s The Man Who Knew Infinity and Christopher Hill’s God’s Englishman: Oliver Cromwell and the English Revolution were very impressive. Sampath’s magisterial work is a welcome addition to that list.

Given that Savarkar draws a lot of polarised political opinion today, motivated critics of the books seem keen to slander it, and more so personally discredit the author. References are pulled selectively and out of context, and a media trial of sorts conducted for a work that is undeniably labour of love and which passes all the tests of serious historical analysis and scrutiny.

What seems to further raise the hackles of the critics is Sampath’s public assertions on multiple platforms about the many faults in Indian historiography. These have been highlighted several times earlier too by several of us in the discipline, but with the rise of social media, the critique now manages to reach far and wide and hence the rising discomfort in vested quarters.

Sampath has spoken about the need to make Indian history, especially in our textbooks, pan-India rather than Delhi-centric. This is a perfectly legitimate demand and anybody who looks at the NCERT history textbooks will vouch for this. Incommensurate attention being given to certain dynasties and rulers, especially related to Delhi, even while vast parts of the country remain under-represented or absent is a bane of Indian historiography in the teaching and learning phase.

That Sampath calls for a dispassionate and true portrayal of Indian history, especially the darker phases of Islamic conquests or Hindu genocides under foreign oppression, is not something that anyone needs to have a problem with. Sita Ram Goel, Arun Shourie, Dharampal, Koenraad Elst and several others had been highlighting this need for a very long time.

While Indian Muslims of today are not to be held responsible for these barbaric attacks, there should not be any attempt to rationalise or justify the atrocities of Mahumd of Ghazni, Mohammed Ghori, Timur, Babar, Aurangzeb, and policies of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and his Aligarh movement, Wahabis/Faraizis, pan-Islamism, the Muslim League and flaunting of subservience to the Islamic ummah.

What is the harm in an honest “truth and reconciliation” effort with our troubled past, writing about these vicious invaders who looted and killed our ancestors and pillaged our places of worship? It is unfortunate that for this “crime” historians like Sampath get hounded as being Hindutva spokespersons. Nothing can be more laughable, especially given the wave across the world where statues and names of barbarians are being brought down in an attempt to reclaim history.

Every society needs to look back at the past to explain the contemporary developments so as to avoid the pitfalls of the era gone by. Those who claim to be the ultimate repository of knowledge must be made to realise that false propaganda is no substitute for objective and scientific history. Hence the need for more scholarly works as Sampath has done.

As Fernad Braudel had pointed out, “History is always begun anew: It is always working itself out, striving to surpass itself, Its fate is shared by all the social sciences. So, I do not believe that the history books I am writing will be valid for decades to come. No book is ever written once and for all, and we all know it.” Are there any takers in today’s India?

The writer is a member of Indian Council of Historical Research. His latest book is ‘The Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019: Some Reflections’. Views expressed are personal.

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Why Vikram Sampath finds himself in the line of fire for probing suppressed histories
Why Vikram Sampath finds himself in the line of fire for probing suppressed histories
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