State-sponsored Assault on History

October 28, 2015
Amar Farooqui

State-sponsored Assault on History: What It Means for the Discipline


In an interview published recently the Indian Express (16 October 2015) the chief minister of Haryana and veteran RSS pracharak M.L. Khattar stated that the river Saraswati was an article of faith for Hindus. Without going into the issue of whether Khattar has the authority to speak on behalf of all Hindus and whether his views are representative of the beliefs of Hindus generally, it is important to examine his statement from the point of view of the implications it has for history as an academic discipline. It may be mentioned that the Saraswati is one of the principal, and among the most revered, of the several rivers mentioned in the oldest Veda, the Rig Veda. A concerted effort has been made over the past three decades or so to establish that the river flowed through Haryana and Rajasthan; that the river Ghaggar is in fact a remnant ancient Saraswati; and that the river continues to flow underground.


There can of course be no objection to equating the Ghaggar with the ancient Saraswati as a matter of religious belief. The problem however is that resources of the state are being used to assert that historical evidence has confirmed that the Ghaggar is indeed a remnant of the ancient Saraswati of the Rig Veda, and/or that there is evidence to show that the river continues to flow underground albeit in a truncated form. Such an assertion leaves no scope for trained historians to study and evaluate the evidence, to debate the issue academically, and to work out an understanding that reflects the consensus on the subject. For instance, when in the first week of May 2015, the presence of underground water was found during the course of some digging at the village of Mughalwali in Yamunanagar district of Haryana, it was promptly declared by state functionaries that this was proof of the subterranean existence of the river Saraswati. Playing historian, the government announced that it had conclusively established that the sacred Saraswati continues to flow through Haryana.  The deputy commissioner of the area reportedly confirmed that the Saraswati had been ‘discovered’ at Mughalwali. Significantly, even the opinion of the Archaeological Survey of India was not sought on the matter before such an announcement.


Archaeology is a highly developed branch of history with its own methods and techniques. The interpretation of archaeological evidence has well-established protocols which require data from excavations to be compiled by competent specialists who record in painstaking detail the findings yielded by an excavation, the levels at which artefacts have been found, and details of the soil as well as larger context of the location in which digging has taken place. This data has then to be put into the public domain in the form of reports (the Archaeological Survey has been often criticized for being lax in publishing reports of excavations). It is then that the task of interpreting and evaluating the data commences. There are specialized peer-reviewed journals that provide the forum for putting forth these interpretations and discussing them. It can often take several years before a scholarly consensus or even strongly-stated divergent scholarly positions can emerge. The debates around a particular issue are vital for the growth of the discipline. This is what history, or for that matter any other academic discipline, is all about. Thus is knowledge enriched. In the present case none of these protocols have been followed. Instead the state has used its machinery and authority to undermine and subvert the discipline of history. Further, archaeology is being invoked not to bolster faith (which in any case does not need the assistance of archaeology) but to project an ahistorical perception of the past to promote the divisive political agenda of the Sangh parivar. This ahistorical perception is not an alternative interpretation of the past, but a set of assertions which have no grounding in history as a discipline. It treats the professional historian’s extremely sophisticated craft with absolute contempt—a craft practiced in easily recognizable ways in Africa, Asia and Latin America and not just in the advanced regions of the North. Surely nuclear scientists or mathematicians would not accept in silence this kind of subversion of their respective disciplines.


The supposed breakthrough in Yamunanagar district was achieved barely two weeks after the Haryana government formally launched a project for establishing the historicity of the sacred Saraswati river. At a time when major historical projects are unable to find adequate state-funding, Rs.50 crore of public money has been sanctioned by the state government for the project. It is pertinent that the premier national institution for promoting historical research in India, the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), which is entirely funded by the central government has an annual allocation of less than Rs. 20 crore for 2014-15! The generous grant being made available by a state government with modest financial resources might appear to be out of all proportion to the paltry sums routinely set aside for historical research in India. Nevertheless when viewed in the larger context of the political objective of undermining history as a discipline in order to perpetuate an ahistorical perception of the past, it does make sense. A reference might be made here to the endeavours of the Saraswati Nadi Shodh Samsthan, which has been in existence since the late 1990s,to ‘revive’ the sacred river. The organization is headed by a well-known RSS functionary of Haryana, Darshan Lal Jain. There can be little doubt that the focus on the Saraswati River is an integral part of the ideological and political programme of the Sangh parivar.


There are two interconnected issues at stake here, both vital to the ideology of the Sangh parivar. The first is unease over the association of India’s earliest civilization, the Harappan civilization (also referred to as the ‘Indus civilization’ or ‘Indus valley civilization’ since many of the Harappan sites were initially found in the Indus region), with the river Indus. A substantial portion of the course of the river lies in Pakistan, rendering, it may be assumed, the river unsuitable for designating the most ancient urban cultures of the subcontinent and therefore useless as a symbol of the past of the Indian nation. The Sangh parivar has been intervening politically to rename the Harappan civilization as the ‘Saraswati civilization’.


That the political boundaries separating India from Pakistan were artificially demarcated only in 1947 and are irrelevant for the early history of the subcontinent is of no consequence here. However, the Harappan civilization did not know these boundaries: Harappan sites are spread over a very wide area which includes Sindh, Punjab (west and east), Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh. At one end, in the west, a site has been discovered in northern Afghanistan (Shortughai, on the river Oxus/Amu Darya), while the eastern extremity of the settlements is marked by a site (Alamgirpur) in the Saharanpur district of Uttar Pradesh. Sites over this vast zone display a remarkable uniformity. Hence scholars now prefer to go by the archaeological convention of labelling all these sites as ‘Harappan’, since Harappa (located in Sahiwal district, Panjab, Pakistan) was the first excavated site of the civilization to be identified in terms of its distinctive historical features. For the same reason some scholars continue to use the label ‘Indus civilization’ because many of the initial sites to be recognized, in the early 1920s,as providing evidence of the existence of a highly developed ancient urban civilization in the Indian subcontinent were located in the Indus valley (e.g., Mohenjodaro).


The second issue is more complicated since it involves not just a politically driven dispute over nomenclature, but amounts to wreaking havoc on historical chronology. It is asserted that the course of the sacred Saraswati (through what is now the state of Haryana) was the nucleus of the Harappan (‘Saraswati’) civilization which extended from the Indus in the west to the Ganga in the east. The civilization emerged along the banks of this mighty river. The discovery of several Harappan sites in Haryana, many located close to the Ghaggar (i.e., the old channel of the river), is cited as evidence for this claim. A connection is also made between the Saraswati and the Yamuna (which over the centuries is supposed to have shifted eastwards) to assert that present-day Haryana and parts of western Uttar Pradesh were the core area of the civilization. Perhaps the most coherent articulation of this assertion has been presented by David Frawley, an American who claims to be a Sanskrit scholar specializing in the study of the Vedas. Frawley is much admired in Sangh parivar circles for obvious reasons. He was honoured with a Padma Bhushan in 2015 by the present BJP government. In 2015 itself he was invited by the chairperson of ICHR, an ardent advocate of the Sangh parivar’s ahistorical vision of India’s past, to deliver the prestigious foundation day lecture of the institution. The work of Frawley, who has no standing whatsoever among professional historians anywhere in the world, is officially celebrated because as an American endorsing the Sangh parivar view he is useful for lending a semblance of respectability, particularly among non-specialists, to the parivar’s assault on the discipline of history.


In his book entitled Gods, Sages and Kings: Vedic Secrets of Ancient Civilization (second edition, 2012; first published 1991), Frawley asserts that the Saraswati is the most important of the rivers mentioned in the Rig Veda, ‘the central and the greatest of the rivers’, and that ‘it is clear from the Rig Veda and the Vedic tradition that the homeland of its people is the Saraswati river’. Of the Yamuna he says that it ‘first flowed west and only later flowed east into the Ganges as it does today’. And the Ganga too was a tributary of the Saraswati: ‘Yet earlier in the prehistoric era the Ganges also appears to have flowed west into the Saraswati, like the Yamuna’. In other words, the Rig Veda was composed by Vedic-Sanskrit speaking people inhabiting the banks of the mighty Saraswati. Frawley then takes a leap and says that the ‘Indus valley culture must be post-Vedic. The Saraswati stopped flowing about the time of the end of the Indus valley culture’(all quotations in this paragraph are from Part I: Chapter 2 of Frawley’s book). His argument is that if the Rig Veda was composed after the decline of the Harappan civilization by which time the Saraswati was no longer a mighty river there would have been no reason for the sacred text to glorify it in the way that it does. This completely dismantles the chronological framework that professional historians have worked out after decades of study, wherein the Vedic age began a few centuries after the end of the Harappan civilization.


Doing this requires intellectual subterfuge. The date of the Rig Veda must be pushed back by hundreds, if not thousands, of years, since a considerable amount of time is required for the transition from an early pastoral and agrarian society (this is the kind of society that is reflected in the Rig Veda), to an urban society of the type represented by the mature Harappan civilization. In this context reference may be made to a state-funded ‘national seminar’ organized by the Department of Sanskrit, University of Delhi, in September 2015.The theme of the seminar was ‘Vedic Chronology: A Reassessment’. In his keynote address the head of the department declared that the Vedas are nearly five thousand years older than the generally accepted date for their composition. If the revised chronology were put forth as a matter of faith, there might not be a problem. However, and this is crucial, we are told that the date is an established and verifiable historical fact. Apparently this revision is based upon some astronomical data in the Rig Veda. This is not particularly original, since an academic in the USA, Subhash Kak, who happens to be a computer engineer, has been trying to challenge the accepted chronology citing information of an astronomical nature supposedly encoded in the Vedas, in the design prescribed for fire altars.


In 1994 Kak published a book entitled The Astronomical Code of the Rig Veda in which he contended that the text belonged, according to his calculations, to the period circa 4000–3000 BC. The ‘national seminar’ mentioned above took even greater liberty with dates, adding another three to four thousand years! Historians often have differences of opinion, resulting in scholarly debates, about chronology; yet on such an issue where a broad consensus has evolved through a long tradition of historical scholarship on the subject, the debate may be about a few hundred years at the most—not thousands of years. Such trivialization of serious scholarship can of course have enormous popular appeal. One is reminded of the writings of the Swiss author Erich von Däniken who in his entertaining bestseller Chariots of the Gods (1968) suggested that the Egyptian pyramids were built by extraterrestrial beings rather than humans. The difference is that what the Sangh parivar is trying to do is sinister, which can actually lead to cold-blooded murder as happened to Govind Pansare and M.M. Kalburgi (both were engaged in campaigns to propagate a rational and historical understanding of India’s past), and to the wholesale destruction of history as an academic discipline for furthering a cynically divisive agenda.


The 1990s were critical for ideological mobilization to destroy historical scholarship on India’s past, coinciding with the aggressively divisive political mobilization of the Sangh parivar in that decade. An active role was played in the parivar’s political, ideological and financial mobilization by sections of the Indian diaspora in USA, which involved close collaboration among Sangh parivar propagandists in America: in 1995, for example, Kak co-authored a book with David Frawley, In Search of the Cradle of Civilization, which rubbishes most of the existing historical scholarship on Mesopotamia by asserting that India was ‘the cradle of civilization’. One wonders whether Kak would allow a historian with no knowledge of computer science to gatecrash into his area of specialization on the strength of a book containing amateurish formulations that are not sustained by well-recognized protocols of the discipline.


To put the chronology of India’s ancient past in perspective, it needs to be underlined that the earliest food-producing societies emerged around 9000 BC in Palestine. It took another three thousand years for early food-producing cultures to spread to northern Iraq. It took another 2500 years for urban settlements to emerge in southern Iraq, i.e., by circa 3500 BC. Within two to three hundred years a mature urban civilization, the Sumerian civilization, was flourishing in southern Iraq. This chronology is based upon very extensive archaeological evidence, which can now be dated with much precision using extremely advanced scientific techniques. In the case of southern Iraq this evidence can be combined with literary evidence, from the large number of clay-tablets on which are preserved written records in the deciphered ‘cuneiform’ script of the Sumerians. It is beyond anyone’s comprehension why ‘western’ scholars, who it is alleged want to denigrate India, would be interested in projecting the small area between Baghdad and the Persian Gulf as the centre of the earliest civilization in preference to Haryana in India


It took nearly six thousand years for the transition to be made in West Asia from early food-producing societies which used stone tools (these are designated ‘Neolithic cultures’), to metal using societies. In the Indian subcontinent, the shift to food production took place around 7000 BC. The evidence for the beginnings of food production comes from Mehrgarh, a Neolithic site located in Baluchistan. Besides, some early Neolithic sites have been found on the periphery of the Vindhyas, a few of which are contemporary with Mehrgarh.


The Harappan civilization evolved around 2600 BC and entered its mature phase by 2500 BC. The mature phase lasted till 2000 BC, and the civilization came to an abrupt end between 2000 and 1900 BC. In the generally accepted history of the subcontinent, in the way in which the international community of professional historians understands this history, the end of the Harappan civilization was marked by the disappearance of urban centres, and many other prominent features of the civilization. This was followed by another historical phase in the north-western part of the subcontinent for which evidence comes from the Rig Veda as well as archaeology. This phase is designated the Early Vedic Age (1500 to 1000 BC).It was an entirely rural society, combining pastoralism with some agriculture. Linguistically, this was predominantly a society of people who spoke Vedic-Sanskrit, the language of the Rig Veda, though it might have included other linguistic communities as well.


The horse, to which there are constant references in the Rig Veda, is the distinctive signature of the Vedic-Sanskrit speaking communities. There is no evidence of the domesticated horse in the Harappan civilization. Apart from Vedic references to the horse, the archaeological record shows that the domesticated horse is post-Harappan in India. This remains a major obstacle for those who seek to distort the early history of the Indian subcontinent. Not surprisingly, attempts have been made to ‘manufacture’ evidence about the presence of the horse in Harappan times, attempts that have been completely discredited much to the discomfiture of the likes of N.S. Rajaram who made this claim emphatically in his The Deciphered Indus Script (2000).Incidentally, the script remains undeciphered. An illustration in this book purports to be the depiction of a horse on a Harappan seal. It turned out to be a hoax, and Rajaram had to admit that the illustration was a ‘computer enhanced image’. Rajaram, whose training is in mathematics, and who worked with NASA in USA as an engineer at some stage of his career, co-authored a book with David Frawley in 1995 on the ‘origins of civilization’. It does not require much ingenuity to figure out that much of the impetus for the onslaught on the discipline of history in relation to India is coming from non-historians, usually people with training in engineering or mathematics, and based in the United States. This onslaught is partly being driven by them, and their association with its political agenda is valuable for the Sangh parivar as it gives legitimacy to this onslaught in non-specialist circles especially among sections of the urban middle class which assume that this is cutting-edge historical research.


We should bear in mind that while the pastoral and agrarian economy of the Vedic era was evolving in north-west and northern India, subsistence patterns based upon food gathering and hunting, or on food production, or a combination of the two, continued to evolve in other parts of the subcontinent with their own specificities. The chronology for Neolithic cultures and the transition to metal use is slightly different for south India, eastern India and the north-east. In Manipur, for example, the Neolithic settlement at Napchik has been dated to circa 1700 BC. Neolithic tools have been found in Meghalaya (Selbalgiri), Assam (Sarutaru) and Nagaland, but have not been adequately excavated or studied. It is such sites that have to be accorded greater priority for a better and more comprehensive understanding of the early history of the subcontinent. The focus on the history of northern India has deprived these regions of resources for historical research, and the gaps in our knowledge of the histories of these regions will now become even more glaring in view of the political agenda of the BJP government for destroying history as a discipline.


Needless to say, the obsession with the early history of northern India and the chronology of the Vedas is ultimately about the ‘Aryan’ ancestry of the Indian nation, which in turn has its origins in colonial notions of the Aryan race. Those who are descended from the Aryans, original and ancient inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent, the people of the sacred Vedas, have superior claims: non-Aryans can only live on sufferance. During the nineteenth century colonial ideologues advanced the idea that the Aryans were a race (rather than a linguistic group, which the sense in which philologists had initially used the term), and stood at the top of the racial hierarchy constructed by them. This notion was reinforced and fine-tuned by the end of the century, and given a scientific garb. It was asserted that racial characteristics could be determined with mathematical precision, through, for instance, anthropometry which involved, among other procedures, recording the shape and measurement of the nose of individuals of a ‘racial type’ and working out their averages. Arranging these averages in ascending/descending order was supposed to indicate ‘scientifically’ the status of a race in the racial hierarchy, with the Aryans (Aryans of north-western Europe, particularly) at the top. The main ‘racial’ characteristics of Aryans were fair complexion, tall stature, broad forehead, narrow high-built nose, and thin lips. In the context of India, colonial ethnographers such as H.H. Risley (who directed the census operations in 1901) linked race with caste. Since upper castes strictly adhered to endogamy, it was assumed, they had retained their ‘Aryan’ racial purity.


Assertions about Aryan racial supremacy were to reach, as is well known, their climax in Nazi Germany. Within less than three months of becoming chancellor of Germany (January 1933), Hitler enacted a law (April 1933) by which all ‘non-Aryans’ were excluded from employment in government institutions. An ‘Aryan certificate’ (Ariernachweis), which was an official document certifying Aryan descent, was made compulsory for government service and eventually for German citizenship. Not possessing the Ariernachweis could actually put one’s life in peril under Nazi rule. Such measures, which eventually led to mass killings of Jews and Slavs, were accompanied by historical brainwashing of the German people. Official ‘blacklists’ (Schwarzen Listen) of ‘un-German books’ were meticulously prepared and circulated to libraries: these books had to be burnt. History as a discipline was destroyed; history-teaching became a powerful means of Nazi indoctrination. These are the methods being replicated in India. Many of the notions being peddled are identical. For all its professed antipathy to the west, the Sangh parivar’s ideas and methods are actually borrowed either from colonial administrators or Nazi propagandists of the west.


It is a mistake to suggest that the Sangh parivar’s ahistorical assertions about India’s past are alternative ‘interpretations’. Their ideologues holding forth on history are not engaged in historical debates. For one, informed debates take place among specialists who have expertise in their respective areas or branches within a discipline. Academic institutions, professional organizations, and research journals provide the platforms for these debates. Obscure publishers and the internet are no substitute for these platforms. More importantly, these assertions are increasingly being made in a language that is abusive, intimidating and vicious. It is intended to incite violence. And indeed it has led to violence. Such a massive assault on history as a discipline, actively supported by the state, can only be resisted through political mobilization.