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Oct 20, 2021

The Risks of Looking at India’s History Through the Eyes of Pseudo-Historians

While academic historians try to meaningfully understand how the past differs from the present, pseudo-historians want to realise the political ambition of projecting their version of the present onto the past.
Representative photo. India and the Contemporary World – I, History textbook for class IX.
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WhatsApp University continues to bluster forward and even flourish. A full curriculum too seems to have taken shape, with majors in ‘fake news’ and minors in paid-for-journalism. Then there is the rapidly growing field of pseudo-history, which is the exact opposite of academic history.

Academic histories are produced chiefly by professional historians within university settings and can be written only by following disciplinary protocols. Such protocols require that arguments, claims and publications are subject to peer review and must pass muster under the intense scrutiny of subject experts.

To earn your wings as an academic historian, there are a set of unwritten but widely accepted rules. Publish articles in peer-reviewed journals. Books based on research in the field should preferably be published from an established university press. And claims should be vetted by discerning and informed audiences in academic seminars, conferences and workshops. Of course, shoddy research can and does often squeeze past the array of disciplinary gatekeepers. But you most certainly cannot fool all the historians all the time, even if you can fool some of the people some of the time.

Recently, Meera Visvanathan in an article in the Caravan magazine served up a reality check to the many immodest efforts by Sanjeev Sanyal to rewrite Indian history. In his day job, Sanyal is a principal economic advisor to the Government of India, having earned a BA and an MSc in Economics. Visvanathan, on the other hand, has a PhD in History and teaches and researches on ancient India besides being capable in Sanskrit and Prakrit.

In her article, Visvanathan clarifies what writing history means and what is not “history”. Notably, history cannot be reducible to facts. If anything, the reigning consensus amongst professional historians is that history makes sense only when grasped as a relationship between fact and interpretation. That is, academic history always walks on two legs and does not aimlessly hop around between one fact-point to another fact-place.

Visvanathan also explains how Sanyal remains entirely innocent about one of the defining requirements for writing academic history, the notion of ‘source criticism’. Put differently, you cannot simply accept what has been put down on a palm leaf, paper or rock. A source, as any academic historian will tell you, is oftentimes layered with multiple and even contradictory meanings. And that is why claims about history can become compelling only when they are able to rigorously establish the ‘provenance’ of their source or why we should accept something as a historical source in the first place.

To be fair to Sanyal, he makes no claim to being an academic historian; he is an honorary professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. Though for many, being an honorary professor without a PhD might be the source of controversy itself.

To correctly judge the claims of Sanyal and a proliferating number of suchlike, however, we must begin by acknowledging that they are advocates of an entirely new genre of thinking about India’s past. Something that has, in fact, no precedence with regard to at least the last 70 years of history writing in India. This newness follows a pattern and can best be classified as “Pseudo-History”, a departmental level contribution to “WhatsApp education” in general.

Also read: Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib Decry Hindutva Attempts To Distort India’s History

A pattern in pseudo-historians

It should be noted that pseudo-history takes birth by first declaring “conspiracy”. The opening lines in many YouTube talks or books usually begin with a sweeping declaration: that ‘leftists, liberals and Nehruvian’ historians have conspired to write an inglorious history of India. This assertion, interestingly enough, is never backed by any systematic review of the existing literature on the so-called ‘old order historians’.

Who, after all, are these leftist historians and which are the books, in particular, that are the source for so much disquiet and hurt? In great measure, the strange silence over such a question is because pseudo-historians do not attempt to publish credible disciplinary journals nor do they try to make the cut in proper academic forums.

This peculiar “hit and hide” tactic is actually a strategy. Psuedo-history is curated principally for social media, which, as a medium, is hardwired for generating explosive emotion rather than aiming to educate through dialogue. Social media is also a great place for “name-calling” and “dog-whistling” such as the now boring labels of “liberal, leftist or Nehruvian”, which, in turn, for many have become default arguments in themselves.

For pseudo-historians, therefore, understanding India’s past is essentially about trumping the idea of measured reason by tapping into extreme emotions. In such a schema, no quarter is given for nuance or doubt, disagreement or contemplation. The intended outcome, moreover, from this highly mediatised exercise is to somehow assemble the mob, who are forever angry about something and someone.

A second key feature of the pseudo-history project is how they invariably craft a sense of paranoia and sustain a siege mentality towards any likely criticism. Take a recent development involving Vikram Sampath, an author of a two-volume biography of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar. Following his talk at the India Today Conclave, Sampath tweeted that “professional” historians and crazy trolls were aiming to discredit his work.

Subsequent threads in his Twitter account show him to be dramatically venting a victimhood story in a number of television news channels, and promptly following it up with a short piece, published by News18, which describes his huge list of perpetrators noted below:

“Anchored mainly in Marxist historiography and leftist ideology, with a few borrowings from postmodernism, the Annales School, Subaltern and other studies, this new school, which may be called Leftist for want of a better term, has become synonymous with a number of abusive, unethical and unscholarly practices.”

And, more importantly, for Sampath, this proliferating school of leftists appears to have only one objective, which is to “denigrate our own culture and past, to be perennially apologetic about it and feel a spectacular disconnect from our roots” that ultimately leads to the “negation of India’s civilizational greatness”. This claim, however, provides no explanation as to who and why such a plot has been hatched in the first place nor do we get any helpful definition of what “civilizational greatness” means and who really needs it.

For pseudo-historians, therefore, understanding India’s past is essentially about trumping the idea of measured reason by tapping into extreme emotions. Photo: Cofrin Library/Flickr CC BY 2.0

Contrasting modes of discussing the past

Later, on another YouTube channel, The Lallantop, we find Sampath seemingly agreeing with the retired JNU professor Aditya Mukherjee that academic history is about exploring how multiple narratives provide very contingent claims and that history writing cannot be held hostage to political considerations.

In sum, we have two very contrasting modes for discussing the past. For academic historians, critiques and disagreements can potentially always be helpful and intellectually productive. The field of history grows through accumulations and meaningful continuities. After all, in academia, we always try to look ahead by standing on the shoulders of giants. And at the heart of such learning is the need to nurture scholarship through research protocols involving peer review and subject expertise.

Pseudo-historians, on the other hand, are really products of social media. They thrive on a take-no-prisoners attitude in the way they conduct arguments and purposefully stay shy of any considered academic scrutiny.

Clearly, it appears counter-productive for academic historians to engage with pseudo-historians. Ignoring the complications brought on by such a challenge, however, could prove to be unwise in the prevailing political climate. A more positive and helpful approach by academic historians instead could involve a systematic and careful effort to bend the current trajectory of social media, by re-training and redirecting the digital to absorb nuanced and sophisticated academic content.

Also read: UP Varsity Introduces Ramdev, Adityanath’s Books in Syllabus After Govt Recommendation

A shining example that comes to mind is that of Karwaan: The Heritage Exploration Initiative, which was started by a few earnest students but has quickly managed to garner a substantial following around the theme of academic history. Popular writings for the press and online platforms in appealing and accessible prose are other means as well for generating educated and discerning audiences. Academic historians and scholarship in general, in other words, must break from the confines of the university and the specialised classroom by reaching out to the popular and, ultimately, aiming to reach the public with appeals based on good learning and imaginations for a better world.

It must be kept in mind that one of the dangers of pseudo-history is, what the past means to the idea of India. While academic historians are involved in trying to meaningfully understand how the past differs from the present, for pseudo-historians, in sharp contrast, it is about realising the political ambition of trying to project their version of the present into the past.

Rohan D’Souza is professor at the Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies, Kyoto University.

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