The plan is to depict a heroic regime: GN Devy on attempts to rewrite history

Shahid Tantray for The Caravan
09 April, 2023

Ganesh Narayan Devy is a literary critic and cultural activist, whose work can be placed at the intersection of linguistics, anthropology and literary criticism. Devy has written several books and papers that explore the connections between knowledge and power, and how the elite have defined and monopolised knowledge throughout human history. He is the founder of the Bhasha Research and Publication Centre in Vadodara and the Adivasi Academy in Gujarat’s Tejgarh, which works with tribal education. In 2010, Devy led the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, which researched and documented 780 living Indian languages. He is the recipient of the Sahitya Akademi award, the SAARC Literary Award, the Prince Claus award, the international Linguapax prize and the Padma Shri, among many others. 

In 2015, Devy returned his Sahitya Akademi award, to protest the institution’s silence on the assassination of the Kannada epigraphist and rationalist MM Kalburgi, another Akademi award winner. In October 2022, a global collective of around eighty scholars, including Devy, released a 600-page report, “India since the Holocene: The past Twelve Thousand Years of Environment, People, Life, Thought, Expression, Formations, Movements, Traditions and Transformations,” which documents 12,000 years of Indian history. Shahid Tantray, a multimedia reporter at The Caravan, spoke with Devy about the report, attempts to rewrite Indian history by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its electoral arm, the Bharatiya Janata Party, alternative knowledge systems, the appropriation of BR Ambedkar by the right-wing, Indian languages and the eminence being accorded to Hindi.  

Shahid Tantray: Given that the concept of India is relatively new, why are the past 12,000 years of the sub-continent’s history important?  
Ganesh Narayan Devy: When the study of history began, during the nineteenth century in Europe, and for us in its latter half, a tendency emerged that divided the Indian past into modern, mediaeval and ancient history. Ancient Indian history stopped at a timeline when European history stopped. Scholars like Max Muller say that the Vedas are the first oral testimony available to us, to verify our past, so it stopped there. At the same time, archaeology was emerging in the 1830s and archaeologists started studying the past prior to the Vedas. Our history study was not in line with the human habitation in the sub-continent, but with the academic distribution of time.  

That is perfectly alright. But during the last twenty years, ancient genetics’ studies took a very advanced position and because of that, right-wing historians started making big claims that there is great continuity between the archaeological past of the Indus civilisation with the historic past of the Vedic civilisation. But linguistics does not allow for this—there was a clear break. The Indus civilisation went down in 1900 BCE, and then in 1400 BCE, the Vedic civilisation emerged slowly, and it blossomed fully in the seventh century BCE. Then comes Buddhism. So, there was a gap of 500 years. Nothing proves that there was continuity.