Dr. Subramanian Swamy, burning books won’t fix problems with our history texts

Vamsee Juluri(FP): Mr. Subramanian Swamy’s recent suggestion that books by “Nehruvian historians” such as Bipan Chandra and Romila Thapar should be set on fire is like saying Lord Hanuman decided not to make the leap to Lanka, and set Kishkindha ablaze instead.
There is a problem with the way Indian history has been written in India’s official textbooks, and even more so abroad.

Dr. Subramanian Swamy, burning books won’t fix problems with our history texts


There is a problem with the way several generations of educated middle-class Indians went through school ignoring history for serious subjects, like science and math, not just because the latter were important for careers, but also because of how dry and disconnected history was with what we knew and felt. We had no answers to questions about our world, our culture, our customs, our language, and most of all our gods in our modern curriculum. We made do with faith, love, devotion, and of course, doing well in all other subjects.

All that has changed in the last few years. No one wants to listen to bizarre tales about how Hindus were Nazis and conquerors of India. No one wants to live ignominiously with the denial of India’s vast civilisational heritage anymore. So questions have been raised, not only about the more absurd and racist misrepresentation of Indian history in popular culture and pop history, especially in the West, but also about the assumptions of the world’s leading experts on Indian history. This much is understandable, and I consider myself a proud part of the group that is challenging the misrepresention of Indian history.

But the problem is that history cannot be changed like programming on state-controlled television stations. There is an established canon, with institutions, practices, and protocols like evidence, reasoning and argument. It may well be the case that the canon itself is flawed; not just with Hindu history, but with pre-history and natural history, as I suggest in my new book. But for that argument to be made, we have to be ready to make it civilly, professionally, and patiently. It is hard to be patient when opponents dismiss all criticism of their work as fundamentalism, but there really is no other way. Rama could not have found Sita if Hanuman did not go through with his leap. Truth, similarly, will not be rescued from the ten-heads of various–isms and post-isms without due struggle, and dedication.

The trouble is that many of those who see the problem with how Indian history is today, do not recognize that by attacking people and not their intellectual claims, nothing is ever going to change. No doubt, there is an element of gung-ho confidence around now that a BJP government is in charge. But history lessons that change from the top down never last. They will be changed right back when governments change. That is the mark of unstable tyrannies, not a civilization born from adoration of the Goddess Saraswathi.
So by all means let us continue to point out in a civilised fashion, what we find bothersome in Prof. Thapar’s work, or Prof. Doniger’s works. And perhaps we will find that these scholars, who have spent years and lives doing the kind of work most of us find unrewarding, will eventually come around to at least some of our reasoning and arguments. Even if they don’t, we would have created the discourse, the insights, and the arguments for future scholars; there will be future scholars too, future Hindu and Indian scholars who will defy their parents and walk away from being weekend or blog historians to professional ones, and change the field from within. Whatever it is, we cannot go on with this burning and banning stuff. History gives us a moment like this rarely. Another bout of self-goals and self-shooting or self-damning will be hard to recover from.

My suggestion therefore is to change the terms of the debate, and the confrontation. Don’t call for any more books to be banned or burned. In fact, do the opposite. Call on those who opposed Doniger’s book to go ahead and withdraw the complaint. It is a flawed book, in my view, and I have said so. But it cannot be ignored. Even if it is nominally banned in India, it is widely available around the world, and all the tweets and Madison Avenue style ads proclaiming our ancient greatness will not change the minds of those who believe in it. And those who believe in it still matter. Saraswathi protects them, despite their faults, for they have done their service. So let us not talk of these Marxist-Mullah-Missionary historians anymore. Let us just talk about their books, and what we can prove reasonably is wrong with them. And we can do it. We just need respect, and respect for Saraswathi first. And we can never respect the Goddess of Learning by burning books.

Vamsee Juluri’s new book Rearming Hinduism examines the problems with how Hinduism and history are narrated.