Noted historian D N Jha, author of the controversial book The Myth of the Holy Cow, is a staunch critic of saffronisation of education by the Sangh Parivar. He explains to G Sreedathan why he is opposed to the Narendra Modi government. Edited excerpts:
Left intellectuals and historians were bitter critics of the so-called saffronisation drive of the first National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. Recently, the eminent historian Romila Thapar said academics and experts shy away from questioning the powers of the day. Why? Are they scared of Narendra Modi?
No, not all. Historians have not become silent. Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib and others have criticised the Modi government on various issues.They were not afraid of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and they are not scared of Modi either. I am not a spokesman for other historians but can speak for myself: I was not scared of the political power of the day. It was during the NDA regime that I wrote my book Myth of the Holy Cow, which created a lot of problems for me. There are many other historians who are courageous and are fighting the agenda of saffronisation. I was not present at Thapar's lecture but my impression is that she may have made a general appeal to historians to come forward and question the Modi government's education policy.
Why is there such an impression?
Maybe the media is not giving enough space to what the historians say, as it is scared of the government. However, you may be right in a limited sense, that in some history departments in the country, there might not be many vocal historians. One must realise that scholars, like many politicians, may also practise all kinds of opportunism. So some people may have a tendency to come close to power. My own assessment is that one's proximity to power dilutes one's independence. I have never been close to power.
Do you think people like Dinanath Batra are guiding the government's education policy? What's your problem with that?
There are clear indications that Batra is influencing the government's education policy. He has written textbooks that carry a foreword written by Modi. These textbooks are distributed free in Gujarat schools. This, obviously, means that Batra is a person who is dictating terms or laying down what has to be taught in schools. This also means the prime minister approves of what Batra is saying. So Batra is guiding the government's policymakers. Batra has also written to Human Resource Development Minister Smriti Irani regarding the syllabus and Indianisation of history and so on. According to him and people of his ilk, current history is western and Marxist. People who talk like him know neither history nor Marxism nor western historiography. According to them, anyone who is liberal, accommodating or holding a different view from theirs is a Marxist.
Is this policy against the idea of India?
Of course, it is a threat to the idea of India! Generations of Indians have been brought up on the idea that India belongs to everybody who lives in this country, irrespective of religion, caste or sex. If you do something to modify or recast this idea, then it will obviously go against the idea of India that has sustained us for decades.
To give a concrete example, after Modi came to power there has been a spurt in communal riots. There were riots in Bihar and even in Delhi. Modi's idea about India is a Hindu India. Mohanrao Bhagwat says so, Modi okays it. At the Madison Square Garden event, he said India has been a slave for 1,200 years. This means his understanding of Indian history is warped. Colonialism was in India only for 200 years. So for him the so-called Muslim period is part of the colonial phase, meaning thereby that Muslims are foreigners in India.
But Modi is reaching out to the Muslims and minorities.
He is seemingly reaching out to the Muslims. But if this is genuine, why are there so many communal riots? Why is he silent on riots?
But why should Leftist intellectuals have a problem with Modi when people have given him a mandate several times?
When someone talks of development, people easily get attracted. After all, Hitler also came to power through democratic means. I don't buy the argument that since he has got a mandate several times, intellectuals should keep silent. Intellectuals are not guided by votes - they are guided by what their sources say. Also, the problem lies with the word Left. Most historians and social scientists are not Leftists. They are liberals. They are democratic and they champion a scientific approach.
In an interview with Business Standard, Batra had said he is willing to associate with Left intellectuals as well in the larger interest of education…
He (Batra) should approach historians whom he considers Left. Personally, I wouldn't like to even sit with him. What history can be discussed with a person who talks of Vedic science, and aeroplanes and genetics in the ancient period? I have a whole list of howlers in the textbooks written by Batra. He has emerged as the champion of superstition and unreason, which has the approval of the prime minister.
There is a view that people like you are armchair intellectuals. But Batra and others relentlessly fight for the cause they believe in.
Batra has the backing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The RSS is the motivating factor for him. Historians like us are men of limited means. They do not have any political and institutional backing. Their commitment is to academics. They don't have the infrastructure or resources to fight court cases like Batra does.
What is your view of Subramanian Swamy's suggestion that books by "Nehruvian historians" should be set on fire?
If you go by what Swamy has said, then most libraries in India should be burnt. There will not be a library in the country that does not have books about Nehru or on Nehru or by Nehru. Almost all libraries will have books written by historians who have assessed Nehru both critically and favourably. But burning of books is the height of bigotry. I think Swamy's demand for burning books by "Nehruvian historians" is part of a larger project of repudiating and demolishing the legacy of our national movement, in which Nehru's role was crucial. But the national movement does not mean much to the Sangh Parivar, which wants to replace Indian nationalism with Hindu nationalism.
There was a lot of criticism over the appointment of Y Sudarshan Rao as the chief of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR).
Rao has not been active in academics. His research is not visible to the scholarly community. I criticised his appointment in the context of the news that he is interested in fixing the date of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. There is no independent verification of dates of the Ramayana - he might say it is 5,000 years, somebody else may say it is 10,000 years. The saffron brigade has different dates. Also, most of the ICHR chairmen have been fine historians who are known for their research... Rao is not a patch on them.
In a newspaper article, Arun Shourie criticised you and your fellow historians.
Nowadays, everybody tries to become a historian. Whether you are a practising historian or not is not important. What is important is that you should have a proven ability to critically analyse the sources on which history is based. During Vajpayee's tenure as PM, Shourie published a book on historians that had nothing to do with history; it was all slander. Now, he has reprinted the same. Where was he all these years?
In the first NDA government, it was Murli Manohar Joshi and now it is Smriti Irani. How do you compare the two?
My impression is that she is doing what Modi and Batra ask her to do. Joshi was a highly educated man and a professor. He was doing it (saffronisation of education) because he was ideologically with the Bharatiya Janata Party. Even without Vajpayee's guidance, he would have done what he did.