Against History

Sanjeev Sanyal’s attempts to rewrite India’s past

Anshuman Poyrekar/Hindustan Times
Anshuman Poyrekar/Hindustan Times
30 September, 2021

IN THE EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURY, Rabindranath Tagore began his essay “Bharatbarsher Itihas” with a vision of Indian history as a series of recurring nightmares. “The history of India that we read and memorise to sit for examinations,” he wrote, is a story “of who came from where, ceaselessly fought each other, of which sons and brothers wrestled for the throne, of the disappearance of one group and its replacements by another.” Tagore continued:

Where the Indians are, these historians do not answer. As if, only those who have engaged in battles and assassinations alone exist, Indians do not. … In one’s youth, it is history which makes one familiar with his own country. It is exactly the opposite in our case. It is our history which has hidden our country in obscurity.

How do we begin to tell the story properly? This is a question that Tagore asked and tried to answer. More than a century later, the question is being posed afresh, as if it were entirely new. In a speech given in Kolkata in January 2020, Prime Minister Narendra Modi invoked Tagore’s essay to call out the supposed errors in the writing of Indian history. This June, the Parliamentary Committee on education, women, children, youth and sports invited suggestions from students, teachers and experts for “removing references to unhistorical facts and distortions about our national heroes from the text books,” and “ensuring equal or proportionate references to all periods of Indian history.”

The idea that Indian history has been taught incorrectly—that the history we currently study does not do justice to India’s past, that it is framed by colonial and Marxist biases and needs to be rewritten on the basis of the latest evidence—has become a popular chorus. To understand why, it may help to look closely at the work of a key proponent of the need for new histories: Sanjeev Sanyal.