History, it is said, is written by the victors, and therefore Mr. Modi probably feels justified in rewriting the history of India, or (to be fair to him) overwriting the rewriting the Congress has been doing for the last forty years. But all this literary calisthenics has left the ordinary citizen quite confused, to the point where we don’t quite know whether we are a nation on the ascendent or on the decline, whether we are descended from the apes or the Gods, whether we are Aryans, Dravidians or just contrarians.
The Congress has done its bit about rewriting history, but it has not so much rewritten it as ascribed it to a certain family – at least the more glorious parts of it. What the BJP-RSS combine is doing is much more dangerous: it is distorting it to align it with a particular cultural/religious dispensation and censoring large parts of it in the hope that it will gradually disappear over a period of time. It began with the demolition of the Babri Masjid in the eighties and today is manifesting itself in the packing of national institutions with RSS ideologues, selective editing of school text books, and reworking the charter of 34 museums and memorials to incorporate current governance initiatives and Mr. Modi’s achievements. This is specious at best and malicious at worst because museums are repositories of the past, not think tanks of the present. To serve the latter purpose Mr. Modi has enough institutions at his disposal – starting with the NITI Ayog – where he can legitimately gold plate his ideas. Why can’t he leave the museums to professional historians and academics to document the past as it was, not reinvent it in the image of the BJP government.?
It is in this context that the recent renaming of Aurangzeb Road in Delhi as Abdul Kalam Road acquires significance. This is not an innocent faux pas, of the type we have come to expect of all Indian governments. It is a trial balloon. (There are, I learn, 177 other roads, towns etc. named after Aurangzeb in the country, and they would be next on the chopping block if the current experiment succeeds).
Roads, buildings, institutions over time become part of a country’s collective consciousness, and by naming them after historical personalities we embed the latter more firmly in that consciousness and sense of history. Unlike the artifacts in museums and the text in books these buildings/roads become part of our daily lives and living culture – just think of our associations with Khan Market, Lodhi Gardens, Victoria Memorial, Chhatrapati Shivaji terminus, Gobindsagar, to understand what I mean. The sheer eclecticism and diversity implicit in these connotations from the past is what makes a country’s history rich and fecund. Unfortunately, it appears that the present government is hell bent on replacing this diversity with a mono-cultural vision of the past and Abdul Kalam Road is the thin edge of the wedge.
Apologists for the government’s action argue that Aurangzeb was a mass murderer, a violent proselytsing Muslim, destroyer of Hindu temples: not a role model to commemorate. Aurangzeb is admittedly nobody’s idea of a boy scout but any dispassionate historian will readily acknowledge the exculpatory factors in his bloody record. Any ruler has to be judged by the social, ethical and behavioural standards of his times, not by the values of 500 years later. In Aurangzeb’s times it was sound real politic to put to the sword all rival claimants to the throne, just as today it is acceptable for Mr. Modi to exile Mr. Advani to the Margdarshak Mandal or for Mrs. Sonia Gandhi to have literally thrown the hapless Sitaram Kesri out of his office, all in similar circumstances: they just did things a bit differently those days. And haven’t we also been doing our proselytsing bit with the Ghar Wapsi programme, also demolishing a few masjids and vandalising a few churches along the way? And this in spite of the Courts, Human Rights Commissions, Minorities Commissions and Arnab Goswami to rap us on the knuckles – conscience keepers whose benefits Aurangzeb certainly did not have. Who really are we to judge this grand Mughal who ruled over a realm larger than any of his predecessors?
The BJP has further exposed its real intentions and thought processes by its choice of the replacement for Aurangzeb. It probably calculated that replacing one Muslim with another was a master stroke, leaving no scope for any criticism. In the process it has revealed its concept of what an ideal Muslim should be. Mr. Kalam was, to coin a phrase, a ” secular” Muslim: he did not wear his religion on his sleeve, studiously kept away from any controversies on the subject, was not ostentatious about either his religious beliefs or practices, was not seen publicly to be pushing for any “affirmative action” on behalf of his community: his true religion was science. To that extent he was, according to the BJP’s line of thinking, a model Muslim, the polar opposite of an Aurangzeb- and it is this model the BJP wants to promote. Not for it the raucous, constitution spouting, politically aggressive, justice seeking Muslims of Kashmir, UP and Hyderabad. (Incidentally, not for it also the gentle, erudite Hamid Ansari, our Vice President, who had the temerity to suggest that the government needed to do more for the upliftment of this community). Which better way to promote this model than by renaming the road ? The capital qualities of Dr. Kalam deserve to be emulated by adherents of all religions, but to obliquely hold them up as a yardstick for just one community is to diminish them, and the man himself.
By this misplaced action the government has done great disservice to Mr. Kalam: it has brought this gentle, humble man of science and letters to the centre of a controversy and a stratagem he would have had no time for. How much better it would have been if the government had instead named a space mission, or an institution of higher learning, or a series of scholarships after the late President. The government would do well to stop tampering with either history or the memory of a man like Abdul Kalam, perhaps the last of a vanished breed.