Alternate history: Passing off fiction as fact

Alternate history: Passing off fiction as fact

It is not often that two distinctive developments, separated by distance across the globe, should have a bearing on contemporary India. One is the terrorist attack on the satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo which killed 12 people in Paris on January 7. The other is the stunning defeat of sitting Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the elections held on January 8. Brimming with over-confidence that he would be re-elected for another six years, for having ended a 30-year-long civil war in the country, Rajapaksa, called these elections two years ahead of schedule. His defeat shows, once again in history, the frailty and futility of arrogance that accompanies authoritarian rule in a democracy.

This latter development has a bearing on us, with the current ruling dispensation increasingly showing tendencies of all power flowing from the Prime Minister’s Office.

The authoritarian trends are increasingly seen with the strengthening of the current ‘Ordinance Raj’. The Union finance minister has reportedly said that while the Rajya Sabha can have “its say”, the government will have “its way”. President Pranab Mukherjee’s reported unprecedented cautioning of this government on frequent recourse to take the ordinance route seems to be falling on deaf ears.

The former development, once again, shows that rousing religious passions spreading intolerance lead to unpardonable crimes against humanity through terrorist attacks. Aggressive pursuit of the Hindutva agenda and sharpening communal polarisation through campaigns of ‘love jihad’ or ‘ghar wapsi’ engender such tendencies in our country.

Communalism and fundamentalism in our country grow by feeding on each other. In order to strengthen themselves, they seek to glorify the past, to conquer the present and capture the future. To glorify the past, mythology replaces history and masquerades as the repository of scientific advance. Thus, there is a tendency to continue to refuse to learn the correct lessons from these developments.

A case in point is the recent 102nd annual Indian Science Congress. Instead of discussing India’s current scientific achievements and defining its future direction, it became the platform to propagate ‘unscientific temper’. Section V, Article 51A (h) of our Constitution on Fundamental Duties of every citizen enjoins upon us, among other things, “To develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform”.

The science congress should have impressed upon the prime minister, who customarily inaugurates this meet, irrespective of the government in power, to spend more than the current measly 0.88% of our GDP on research and development for India’s emergence as a global power. The United States spends 2.74% and China around 2%. The GDP of both these countries is much larger than India’s, meaning that they spend multiple amounts more in absolute terms.

Instead, this science congress made various claims, glorifying Indian science in the ancient past (read: glory of ‘Hindu civilisation’) like aircraft technology existed in India 7,000 years ago, etc. Such fabrication of our ancient history has been emboldened, also, by the prime minister’s earlier claims that plastic surgery in ancient India could implant an elephant’s head on a human body to create Lord Ganesha and that ancient India was well-versed with ‘stem cells research’ and in ‘in-vitro fertilisation’ like procedures that permitted the immaculate conception and birth of Karna.

Of course, there were many landmark scientific achievements in ancient India. The advances in astronomy and mathematics were path-breaking. But they came more than four millennia later than claimed! However, modern science would have been impossible without the invention of the zero, not merely as a tool for accounting (in which many other ancient civilisations preceded us) but as a philosophical and mathematical concept whose opposite is the infinite.

This gave birth to negative numbers, irrational numbers, quadratic equations, mathematical constants, etc, and the philosophical ‘battle of ideas’. Though Arab traders carried these scientific achievements to the western world, to be fair, they credited “the lands beyond the Indus river”, Hindustan, for these advances.

Mahatma’s ghar wapsi By RajMohan Gandhi

However, 7,000 years ago, what was the state of human civilisation in these lands? Archaeologists have painstakingly documented this evolution through scientific methods like ‘carbon dating’. Between 5,000 and 4,000 BCE, the stage is described as having reached “handmade ceramic; cotton cultivated”. This is based on the findings at Mehrgarh-II, an early site of the Indus Valley Civilisation.

Further, assuming such were ancient India’s achievements as claimed, why could various kingdoms in these lands not resist, indeed stop, periodic invasions, the establishment of Empires leading to the colonisation of India? Did not our scientific growth stagnate after the Brahmanical caste hierarchical order re-triumphed over Buddhism, denying access of learning and knowledge to the vast majority of our people? Buddhism had encouraged such a milieu, permitting scientific advance to thrive.

Often the Hindutva brigade accuses Marxist historians of debunking the ‘glory of the ancient Hindu civilisation’. However, the most elaborate expositions of advances made in ancient India have come from the writings of Marxists like Irfan Habib (born a Muslim), Rahul Sankirtyayan, DD Kosambi, Devi Prasad Chattopadhyaya and many others.

Historians of the Hindutva variety, on the other hand, did not make any significant study of our ancient past that would stand up to serious intellectual scrutiny.

Such rewriting of history is now being done, through the spread of ‘unscientific temper’, to glorify and establish as MS Golwalkar propagated the uninterrupted glory of the “Hindu civilisation” in these lands since ancient times.

The RSS/BJP are vigorously working to transform, by sharpening communal polarisation, the modern secular democratic Indian Republic into the RSS project of a rabidly intolerant fascistic ‘Hindu Rashtra’, where religious minorities and atheists will not be treated as equal citizens. The realisation of this project, unless resisted and defeated, will permit such a transformation of India, as we know of it today.

Rajmohan Gandhi is research professor at the Centre for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, US