Coming to Terms with the Past: India

Latha Menon deplores the effects of religious extremism on Indian society and the writing of history.

On January 5th, 2004, a group of thugs ransacked the renowned Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune, India, destroying priceless manuscripts and artefacts. Their ‘protest’ stemmed from the involvement of some of the Institute’s academics in translating manuscripts for the book Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India by the American historian James W. Laine, in which Laine allegedly made insulting remarks against their hero. Though partly driven by regional tensions, this attack illustrates several points relating to history, historiography, and recent socio-political developments in India.
First, it highlights the central role of irreplaceable material evidence in history. Second, it underlines the role of perceptions of the past in the concerns of the present, particularly those relating to identity. Shivaji was a Hindu king who successfully fought the forces of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, declaring himself king and establishing the powerful Maratha Confederacy. His story has become legendary.
The story of the Hindu Maratha hero’s defiance and success against a Muslim king has taken on its own part-mythical life, so much so that the actual historical evidence seems secondary, troublesome and inconvenient. The past is dead and can be manipulated or, if necessary, obliterated; the myth must live.

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