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Stalin as an Indian historian

Publication Date : 19-07-2012


I recently visited a museum in Moscow that throws light on Stalin's Gulags among his other relics of ideological zeal.

An exhibition of official photographs from the period revealed a history of subterfuge — his close colleagues were periodically airbrushed and magically deleted from group photos according to the exigency of political control the communist czar sought, and usually got with callous ease.

Earlier this week a Pakistan-born writer-activist who is best regarded for his street-fighting leadership of the 1960s students’ uprising in Europe forwarded me an article by British historian Perry Anderson, which was about Mahatma Gandhi. I found the theme — evidently inspired by a quietly ignored book by Kathryn Tidrick, Gandhi: A Political and Spiritual Life — similar to the concern expressed in the exhibition of Stalin’s photographs.

A dominant genre of India’s mainstream historiography appears to be quite willing to airbrush those aspects of the narrative that challenge or interrupt their noble idea of "national" history. For example, there has been a tradition of right-wing religious assaults on the leaders of the national movement, even leading to the murder of one of them. The liberal critique has been more conniving with the purposes of the states they helped found.

The secular-communal binary, stalking the liberal debate in the subcontinent since 1947 or before, evinces casual interest in the sociology outside the Hindu-Muslim paradigm. That there was a raging caste dispute, which, if allowed to run its course, could have changed the course of the Jinnah-Gandhi clash, is studiously underplayed if also mostly ignored in India and Pakistan alike.

How Gandhi was killed by a Hindu fanatic for the stand he took to appease Pakistan or protect Indian Muslims is staple fare, but it is not deemed relevant by mainstream historians to discuss how the assassinated leader and his assassin may have shared sociologically regressive ideas on inter-faith marriage, for example, or on the benefits of the hereditary varna system and eventually over their notion of religion-driven secularism itself. How an unequal relationship of the leaders with their spouses reflected a nascent problem of gender bias, which today overwhelms the subcontinent, does not look like a kosher enough topic to ponder.

Urdu poet Kaifi Azmi said writing songs for Bombay movies was akin to a search for the right corpse to fit the size of a given grave. A vocal crop of historians in the subcontinent, on all sides of the border, similarly tend to take their search to fit axioms that may be often rooted in calendar art, which in turn was inspired by colonial historiography. The idea of India among the country’s more nationalist-minded historians thus seems to be not very different from the image of a Hindu goddess astride a lion, promoted by early 20th century obscurantist-nationalists, with her crown in Kashmir and feet somewhere in today’s Tamil Nadu.

Which single ruler before the advent of the British — from the Gupta, Maurya or Mughal pantheon — ever governed the entire stretch of territory that the goddess seated on the lion depicts is probably not a wise query if the objective is to stir maudlin nationalism.

The calendar notion of India was not inherited by well-meaning historians alone. In fact, more than anyone else the idea was legitimised by Allama Iqbal and his theme poem about Hindustan’s invincibility, and offers a good example of a vast expanse called India. This was, of course, before Iqbal advocated his beloved Hindustan’s vivisection on communal lines.

Similarly, Tagore’s poem on his notion of India, which was adopted as the country’s national anthem, is infused with a geographical expanse promoted for the first time by the British.

Perry Anderson’s essay on Gandhi is important because it questions axioms of dominant Indian historiography. Let me cite two examples from the essay, one dealing with Gandhi’s conflict with Dalit leader Bhim Rao Ambedkar and the other about his coup against leftist leader Subhas Chandra Bose, who challenged Gandhi’s use of religion to enthuse Hindu and Muslim masses. Bose brought them together under a more radical anti-British canopy.

What was his attitude to caste? He had set it out while Non-Cooperation was surging, in 1920-21. Untouchability was a heinous crime. However, as Anderson quotes Gandhi as saying: "Interdrinking, interdining, intermarrying, I hold, are not essential for the promotion of the spirit of democracy."

I quote Anderson: "To reclaim the Untouchables for Hinduism was an ideological imperative for the reputation of the religion itself. But it was also politically vital, since if they were subtracted from the Hindu bloc in India, its predominance over the Muslim community would be weakened…. Most menacing of all, Gandhi confided to a colleague, might not Untouchables, accorded separate identity, then gang up with "Muslim hooligans and kill caste Hindus"?"

Of the satyagraha of 1932 against giving separate electorate to the Dalits, Ambedkar wrote, after he was forced to sign a pact with Gandhi: "There was nothing noble in the fast. It was a foul and filthy act. The fast was not for the benefit of the Untouchables. It was against them and was the worst form of coercion against a helpless people," forcing them to “agree to live on the mercy of the Hindus”. He regretted his capitulation at Poona to the last.

Gandhi had always rejected any talk of socialism as a breach of the sacred trust in which capitalist property was legitimately held, threatening to have nothing to do with the party if it took it up. The leader of the new left-wing current, Subhas Chandra Bose, a Bengali heading the All India Youth Congress, stood for a coalition, according to Anderson "with the Muslim peasant party in his native province that was no less anathema to the Marwari businessmen of Calcutta, Hindu chauvinists to a man, than his socialism." The wealthiest of these, the magnate G.D. Birla, was a long-time follower and intimate of Gandhi. When Birla made his feelings known, Gandhi put his foot down, and the Congress high command duly scuppered Bose’s inter-communal initiative.

The difference between the airbrushing of history in Stalin’s Russia and the democratic Indian variant is palpable. Instead of excommunicating the adversaries, the Indian version puts everybody together — a veritable pantheon of deities to bet on, not unlike a roulette table of politics.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.


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