Thursday, July 03, 2003

rewriting indian history

By Shailaja Neelakantan
(This book review appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in July 2003).

In Times of Siege By Githa Hariharan. Viking. $22

Githa Hariharan's new novel, In Times of Siege, is a disturbing fictional portrait of the ideological polarization and sectarian conflict that in recent years have permeated every facet of life in India. This is the story of Shiv Murthy, a college history teacher whose life is thrown into chaos when a lesson he writes runs afoul of the Itihas Suraksha Manch (Forum for the Protection of History). The novel is a strong commentary on recent disgraces perpetrated in the writing of Indian textbooks.

In September last year, India's highest court cleared the way for changing the country's core history curriculum to suit the fundamentalist ideology of the ruling Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The textbooks have been rewritten to cast India's history as mainly a struggle between "native" Hindus and Muslim "invaders." The new texts seek to justify the repressive Hindu caste system and even omit to mention the assassination of Mohandas Gandhi in 1948. (The assassin was a Hindu fanatic who belonged to a group that was the progenitor of the BJP.)

In Hariharan's novel, the protagonist becomes the focus of fundamentalist ire over his description of a 12th-century poet and social reformer, Basava, who believed that Hinduism's rigid and oppressive caste system needed radical reforming. The fundamentalists object to the humanizing of Basava, whom they consider a saint. And the mere suggestion that Hinduism needs reforming has the Manch frothing at the mouth. They want the lesson retracted and an apology from Shiv.

The fictional Shiv's experience is similar to that of a real-life playwright, H.S. Shivaprakash, whose play on Basava was condemned by self-appointed protectors of history some years ago. The novel draws from India's present, however, in which the BJP government controls financing and appointments at institutions engaged in historical research and textbook writing.

The effort to polarize Hindus and Muslims through "history" has already had consequences. In 1992, the "historical" claim that the 400-year-old Babri mosque was built on the site of the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram spurred Hindu militants to destroy the mosque, sparking nationwide religious riots and planting the seed for the Godhra massacre in Gujarat in March last year. The novel's Manch is a clear analogue of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council), which, as the ideological backbone of the BJP, sees history as a tool in its campaign to construct a Hindu nation.

Hariharan's protagonist is a quiet man who prefers to stay away from controversy. "Shiv's own campaigns are minor rebellions; secretive mutinies," the author writes. But events take on a momentum of their own as left-wing university students, including Shiv's ward, organize protest rallies and demonstrations. The Manch retaliates violently, destroying Shiv's office. "I never thought my little lesson on Basava would grow to such epic proportions," says Shiv to his ward, Meena. Now convinced the controversy won't just go away, he resolves to take a stand. He tells his boss that he won't apologize to the Manch.

Hariharan captures Shiv's besieged existence with just the right amount of angst, confusion, polemic and humour. "Shiv sees his lesson sent to the corner in disgrace . . . there is a warning sign that quarantines it from the other booklets, a sign like the ones on those ominously shaped vehicles carrying dangerous chemicals. Caution! Highly Inflammable Medieval History. Only known antidotes: 500 mg of blissful ignorance or 250 mg of unadulterated lies."

Hariharan, whose first novel won the Commonwealth Prize in 1993, has written another persuasive work that tells of the perils of sectarianism and silence in the face of oppression.