A forceful, but perhaps unnecessary, effort in support of the popular faces of the independence struggle
We are living in times famous (or infamous, depending on one’s ideological orientation) for rewriting of history. While one kind of rewriting led by the so-called pro-Hindutva writers is very much under the lens of the liberal intelligentsia, the other kind of rewriting, or may one say interpretation, by Leftist scholars is generally brushed under the carpet, or best categorised as a secular school of thought.
For instance, JNU historians Bipan Chandra, Mridula Mukherjee and Aditya Mukherjee’s India Since Independence highlights the difference between the 1984 anti-Sikh riots with the one which took place against the Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. The writers, with a soft corner for Congress-Left, have taken pains to project the barbarity against the Sikhs as one not sponsored by the then ruling Congress party, but as a spontaneous one by poor slum dwellers who saw Indira Gandhi as their beloved leader. However, the Gujarat one is plainly called a state-sponsored genocide. There’s not much difference between this kind of interpretation, which is based on quid pro quo ideological lines, from the kind of history being espoused by the likes of Dinanath Batras. However, while the latter attracts flak, the former is seen as a point of view by a secular school of thought.
The other fad that is dominating history writing and political opinion during contemporary times is re-looking at the role of Gandhi. Writers like Arundhati Roy and former Supreme Court judge Markandey Katju do not hesitate in calling Gandhi either as an agent of the bourgeoisie or the British. It is only a sign of the times that their enlightened views are debated, while Arun Shourie, who wrote Worshipping False Gods, which was a review of BR Ambedkar’s role, was dismissed and even had to face blackening of his face by a motivated mob. This fad of running down Gandhi is often accompanied by a counterfactual view—if it had not been for Gandhi and had Subhas Chandra Bose or Jinnah or Ambedkar had their way, our current lot would have been much better. Since Gandhi had ideological rivals during his time, it is very easy to supplement such counterfactual hypotheses with reference material. It is these kind of historical writings that led famous historian EH Carr to write decades back that there’s no such thing as ‘objective history’. Carr’s point was that based on his/her biases, a historian first comes to a conclusion and then works backwards to look for those facts that suit the hypothesis, and then neatly arranges them as ‘facts’, omitting the unsuitable ones. This led him to remark that facts are like sacks and they don’t stand up unless something is put inside them. In short, objective fact is a misnomer.
Rajmohan Gandhi, who is not only a grandson of the Mahatma, but also a distinguished professor of history and political science, has to his credit a range of works on Gandhi, Patel and Rajaji. In Understanding the Founding Fathers, he has tried to take on two personalities—Swami Sachidanand from Gujarat and a professor at an American University, Perry Anderson. Both of them have works to their credit denigrating Gandhi, albeit for different reasons. The swami, who was once a Gandhi acolyte, changed his views after India’s debacle in the 1962 war with China, putting the blame for the defeat on the Mahatma for “de-militarising the Indian psyche”. Anderson, a Left-leaning scholar, has to his credit works where he demonises Gandhi and Nehru while eulogising Bose, Ambedkar and Jinnah. In his view, the blame for Partition or even the Kashmir problem lies at the doorsteps of Gandhi and Nehru and our republic would have been much better had it been fashioned by the likes of Jinnah, Bose or Ambedkar. The swami’s and the professor’s theses are riddled with holes and Rajmohan Gandhi’s current work not only brings this to light, but also puts history and historical writings in their proper context. There’s no point in either demonising or deifying a historical personality. There will be strengths and weaknesses in such figures, wrong and right steps taken during their lifetime, all of which need to be seen and examined in a proper context. Seeing them as the march of god on earth and then vilifying them as a failed god is a wrong approach.
While it is certainly engaging, the manner in which Rajmohan Gandhi has demolished the anti-Gandhi and Nehru tirade, one feels if there was any need to provide a counter to such rootless swamis and unknown professors. There will be legion like them, and responding to every barking dog can become not only a Herculean task, but an exercise in futility. But maybe, the historian in Rajmohan Gandhi wants to put things in perspective. While the book is an engaging and informative read for all, it is of particular significance for students, because at that stage, the propensity to demonise historical figures is high, along with the temptation to look for alternative heroes.