Playing mischief with history

April 29, 2022

Rohit Dhankar

Recently three articles are published in The Indian Express with a range of views on the current vitiated communal atmosphere in the country. On 15th April 2022 Mr. S. Y. Quraishi published a short article titles “Calling out hate”. On 21st April 2022 Mr. Balbir Punj published a rejoinder to Mr. Quraishi titled “Ignorance isn’t bliss”. To which Prof. Narayani Gupta published a rejoinder titled “History as mischief” on 26th April 2022.

These three short articles, hardly longer than notes, cover a range of views on the causes and extent of current communal strife and hate speech. Could be useful starting points for pondering on what is happening in the country. My main purpose in this article is to examine Prof. Gupta’s article, the other two I have mentioned to give the context. However, it might be useful to devote a few more lines to the context just to make it clearer. Mr. Quraishi starts with concern over hate speech and examines who should stop it as per the law. In says that “[H]ate speech is at the root of many forms of violence” and writes as a concerned citizen to start with. But when he starts giving examples of hate speech and violence one notices that all the examples are those of Hindus committing this crime and not even a mention of any fault and instances of either hate speech or cause of hate speech from Muslim side. And thus, the article which started with the genuine concern from a citizen reduces itself to Muslim perspective alone.

Mr. Punj in his rejoinder mainly refutes two points in Mr. Quraishi’s article: one, hate speech being the root cause of some forms of violence and Mr. Quraishi’s one sided-ness in accusing only Hindus. He seems to suggest that the hate on the basis on religion entered India with Islam. And recounts the standard list of Right-wing Hindu narrative, starting with Muhammad bin Qasim’s attack on Sindh to present day in India and giving some recent examples from Muslim rioting in Sweden, Spain and Jerusalem. He tries to make a claim that before the Islam entered in India there was equanimity in the Indian society, and Islam’s insistence of only one true God and if in power “treating local Hindus as zimmis, forcing them to pay jizya” and destruction of their places of worship destroyed this equanimity. He charges the the author of the earlier article of over simplifying a “complex phenomenon” to “suit a convenient political narrative”. Also of ignorance and of “pusillanimity to face facts”. But does not directly change of mischief and dishonesty.

And that brings us the main article which I propose to analyze here in a little more detail. Prof. Gupta starts with the standard narrative building tactic which involves discrediting the opponent without refuting his/her claims and declaring the article as almost juvenile effort by comparing it to her younger days’ efforts when “wanted to comment on any article in a newspaper”. Prof. Gupta accuses Mr. Punj of cherry picking from history. However, also notes that the strapline of Mr. Punj’s article is “[U]nderstanding trail of hate in India requires honest examination of its origins”. That makes it clear the purpose of Mr. Punj’s article was not to provide an exhaustive analysis of historical roots of hate between Hindus and Muslims, but to hint at a corrective to Mr. Quraishi’s one-sided narrative by giving some historical examples. Since Mr. Quraishi took all the contemporary examples only of Hindu hate speech, he is pointing to historical roots and recounting only those incidents which cause hate, completely ignoring the syncretic tradition.

Prof. Gupta then grandly declares that “[H]istory as a discipline is about time, place and people. Teachers of history compartmentalise themselves into sections of time and of place/region. Not so the non-historian.” Thereby reminding the reader of her own credentials and authority as a historian and Mr. Punj’s lack of the same. Which would be fine had she shown that historian’s acumen in the rest of the article. Then reminds the reader that there was Sufi tradition in Sindh which Mr. Punj ignores. The only substantial claim by Mr. Punj she expresses doubt is that he writes of Mahmud of Ghazni that he “took a vow to wage jihad every year against Indian idolators”. And says that she “tried to locate a source for this, and came up only with one — an earlier article by Punj”. This is a minor point in Punj’s article, and may actually be wrong. As far as Ghazni’s proclaiming himself as champion of Islam and destroyer of infidel’s idols is concerned there are plenty of references. Prof. Romila Thapar on the authority of M. Nizami writes about Mahmud Ghazani “[H]is support for the Caliphate was engineered to obtain for himself the appropriate titles of the defender of Islam”. Alberuni writes, “Mahmud utterly ruined the prosperity of the country, and performed there wonderful exploits, by which the Hindus became like atoms of dust scattered in all diorections, and like a tale of in the mouth of the people. Their scattered remains cherish, of course, the most inveterate aversion towards all Muslims”

The mischief

The most mischievous lines in Prof. Gupta’s article are “Ghaznavi’s exact contemporary, Rajendra Chola, was in the same period raiding Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. In Indian school textbooks Ghaznavi has always been an “invader”, the Cholas were “conquerors”.”

To understand the full extent of this mischief we need to see at the least one more example from Class VII Social Studies of book of NCERT, the following passage is from Chapter 5 titled “Rulers and Builders” in this book.

“… in the early eleventh century, when the Chola king Rajendra I built a Shiva temple in his capital he filled it with prized statues seized from defeated rulers. An incomplete list included: a Sun-pedestal from the Chalukyas, a Ganesha statue and several statues of Durga; a Nandi statue from the eastern Chalukyas; an image of Bhairava (a form of Shiva) and Bhairavi from the Kalingas of Orissa; and a Kali statue from the Palas of Bengal.

Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni was a contemporary of Rajendra I. During his campaigns in the subcontinent he attacked the temples of defeated kings and looted their wealth and idols. Sultan Mahmud was not a very important ruler at that time. But by destroying temples – especially the one at Somnath – he tried to win credit as a great hero of Islam. In the political culture of the Middle Ages most rulers displayed their political might and military success by attacking and looting the places of worship of defeated rulers.”

Prof. Gupta equates Mahmud of Ghazni and Rajendra Chola and points out bias in calling Rajendra Chola a “conqueror” and Ghazni an “invader”, she terms campaigns of both “raids”. The NCERT textbook wants to show a parallel between the two and communicate that destruction of temples in the Middle Ages was nothing special to Ghazni or Islamic rulers, and this was a done thing by most kings to show their political might.

We need to understand this mischief carefully. [I am not a historian, just trying to make sense of some of the claims of historians which seem to have serious inconsistencies as per my ordinary logic. Therefore, will accept the errors in my judgment if some historian provides evidence which an ordinary thinker can accept as reasonable. But currently I do have serious doubts about these claims of equating Mahmud Ghazani and Rajendra I of Chola dynasty. This is somewhat long and tedious, the readers, if any, have to be patient. 🙂]

First, let’s look at the list of looted statues the first paragraph in the NCERT book gives. The book itself gives no references, but the list provided by Richard Eaton closely resembles it. He writesd: “In the early eleventh century, the Chola king Rajendra I furnished his capital with images he had seized from several prominent neighbouring kings: Durga and Ganesha images from the Chalukyas; Bhairava, Bhairavi, and Kali images from the Kalingas of Orissa; a Nandi image from the Eastern Chalukyas; and a bronze Siva image from the Palas of Bengal.” One can immediately see that most of the images mentioned are common in the NCERT book and Eaton’s paper. In this section of his paper Eaton gives a long list of statues looted by Indian Hindu kings from other Hindu kings. The reference he gives for this long list is from Richard H. Devis’s “Lives of Indian Images”.

In this entire list Eaton given one single example of destruction of an image. It must be noted that looting an image of a deity and then installing it in one’s own temple is not the same thing as destroying the image. As Eaton himself notes the Indian kings derived their authority from the deity of the kingdom, and their political legitimacy as well as power was supposed to be bestowed as well as protected by the deity. A king who takes the image and installs it in a temple in his own capital city is communicating that ‘the deity has left the defeated kind, and now bestows His grace and protects my kingdom and not that of the defeated king’. Here the real target of attack is the king and not the deity. The idea is not to destroy the religion, or any animosity to the religion, not is to insult the deity and the religion, but to say that the religion and deity now fevour me, rather than the defeated king. This motivation and message is very different from what was being communicated by Muslim destroyers of temples, including Mahmud Ghazni. Prof. Thapar notes in “Somanatha: The many voices of History” about Ghazni that “[T]he purpose of the raids was multiple, of which iconoclasmwas undoubtedly a motivation.” That is why it was necessary to destroy the image and take pieces of it to be placed on the steps of mosque to be trodden upon by the believers. Here the message is that your god is false, and I want to destroy it, and to inflicvt an insult upon the religion and its believers.

But Eaton also gives at the least one example of destruction of an image of deity Hindu troops. The example is of destruction of image ‘supposed to be’ of “Vishnu Vaikuntha, the state-deity of Lalitaditya’s kingdom in Kashmir” by “Bengali troops”. Eaton gives no clear reference, but since all this list seems to be based on Richard Davis, this is reasonable to assume that this example of image destruction is also based on the same source. Davis gives the story based on Kalhan’s Rajataringiti. It is an interesting story. The part of the story concerned with my argument goes as follows: “Once, after making a promise of safe conduct to the king of Gauda (Bengal), and offering as surety (madhyastha, lit. “intermediary”) on his pledge the image of Visnu Parihasakesava, Lalitaditya treacherously ordered the ruler assassinated. Such a brazen act clearly departed from all standards of proper royal conduct, and called for revenge. As we might expect by now, the reprisal was directed not at the perpetrator of the deed but at its intermediary. A troop of the murdered king’s dedicated attendants snuck into Kashmir, posing as pilgrims…”. Here the deity was pledged as surety and intermediary, the king who worshiped that deity acted treacherously. And it was an act of specific revenge. Also, it was an act of loyal troops of the assassinated king. All other looting of images is to respectfully reinstating them in temples in the capital cities of the victorious kings. They all were motivated by politics and it was the kingdom under attack, not the religion or deity. In destruction of temples by Muslim rulers its was also the religion of infidels and their idols.

A historian who does not understand this difference is not worth his/her salt. And a historian who understand this but hides the fact and makes false parallels is not honest, and is playing mischief.

The second point in the above quotes of Prof. Gupta and NCERT textbook in equating Rajendra I and Mahmud Ghazni is about ‘raids’. I am not sure on this. I do know that Ghazni was actually ‘raiding’ repeatedly to destroy temples and images, to loot wealth and to capture slaves to be sold in slave markets. But suspect that Rajendra I was attacking to extend his kingdom. If there is evidence of Rajendra I only raiding and of no intention to establish his rule on the defeated territories, calling both raiders will be justified. If not, then one was actually conquering, the other raiding. But the terms are “invader” and “conqueror”. This difference seems to be because of national alignment of the rules in question, however, I don not find it unjustified. Indians may call Rajenda I as ‘conquerer’ as they consider his a great ruler in their history; and say Shri Lankans may call him an ‘invader’ if they do not accept him as contributing to development of their nation, and also consider him as outsider.

There are many more examples of this kind of mischief in our history books. I will just mention a few from a single chapter of the same NCERT book without going into details. The chapter titled “The Delhi Sultans” in citing the sources for writing this chapter mentions histories written by court historians of the Sultans, and claims “The authors of tawarikh were learned men: secretaries, administrators, poets and courtiers, who both recounted events and advised rulers on governance, emphasising the importance of just rule.” But do not mention that the justice according to them was ‘Islamic justice’ in which zazia was legitimate and just, and do not mention that in the later part of Delhi Sultanate zazia was levied on Hindus. The chapter mentions that “The Delhi Sultans built several mosques in cities all over the subcontinent. These demonstrated their claims to be protectors of Islam and Muslims.” But does not mention that many temples were destroyed and many of these mosques were build on them. The chapter specifically mentions “Quwwat al-Islam” mosque in Qutub complex in Delhi, but does not tell the students that it is build on Hindu or Jain temple, as the architectural elements can be seen even today. It also does not tell that The “Quwwat-ul-Islam” means “Might of Islam”, which has special significance when the mosque stands on a destroyed temple. Then chapter claims that “These authors advised rulers on the need to preserve an “ideal” social order based on birthright and gender distinctions.” But do not tell that this ideal was Islamic ideal and it had much more than just “birthright and gender distinctions”. All this I think qualifies as distortion of history, if even not active mischief.

However, I am not accusing these authors of any anti-national or anti-Hindu motives, at least not in this article. I think they are guided by a mistaken belief that one can create a cohesive and peaceful society in which different religious communities can co-exist if their history of atrocities on each other is hidden from the new generations. I believe; may be I am wrong, but this is my belief today; that for a cooperative, respectful and peaceful co-existence the involved communities have to ascertain the truth, accept the truth, apologize for the atrocities on each other, make a binding agreement that such atrocities will not happen again. From this point of view, none of the authors of the three article in question here do a good job. Mr. Quraishi mentions only contemporary Hindu aggression and completely ignores Muslim aggression. Mr. Punj talk of Muslim atrocities and Muslim propensity for unrest but conveys that there is no fault on the side of Hindus. Prof. Gupta only obfuscates in the interest of ongoing powerful so-called liberal narrative. None of them is alone helpful to Indian citizens. If one takes them to be representatives (they are not, this is just for an example) of these sections of society, they need to sit together and pay attention to each others facts, conclusions and motivations.