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The Politics of Narration: Myths and “National History”

The Politics of Narration: Myths and “National History”
Historical interpretation is a product of contemporary ideology...Photo by Manfred Antranias Zimmer

Benedict Anderson in his influential work deconstructs the notion of nationalism as a natural historic reality by claiming that a “nation is an imagined political community and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign. It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” A modern invention, a nation is born by imagining its ties with the ancient past, creating symbols, history and values that make a community appear real. The Indian nationalist movement which began as a political movement against the British colonialism was ideological in its systematic reconstruction of India. As a response to the Orientalist discourse on the Indian culture and people as the antithetical ‘Other’ to the superior Western civilization, the nationalists created an India that was a reversal of this dominant ideology.

A public/private split came to embody the Indian culture from the western civilization. While the public domain was considered to have been influenced by the western ideas of science, liberalism and humanitarianism, it was the private realm of religion and morality that was seen to be the guardians of Indian culture. This glorifying of the past was mainly done through myths and history. Not only was there a blurring of the distinction between myths and history, myths became part of an ideological discourse, social, religious and political.

“Hystory, myths and narrativity are integral parts of the holistic scheme of a people’s past memories and present identity. Myths do create a particular discursive space for changes in the knowledge of the past, and this discursiveness gains a divine ordination when religious symbols and sensibilities are added to it” (S.P. Udayakumar).

The ‘Ramayan’ epic directed by Dayanand Sagar was serialised on national television in India from January 1987 to August 1989. The end of the Nehruvian consensus, the liberalisation of the Indian market starting in the 1980s and the erosion of political morality was upsetting the social fabric of middle class India. It was in such scenario that a militant nationalism gained roots. The Hindu nationalism’s solution to this situation was in the return to a purer deeper ancient past. Arvind Rajagopal, the author of ‘Politics after Television’, writes, “Hindu nationalism worked at two levels, on the one hand offering the cultural and ideological accompaniment to liberalisation for middle and upper classes, and at the same time translating it into a religio-mythic narrative that would win popular consent.”

Historical interpretation is a product of contemporary ideology, which encourages the adoption of certain attitudes and theories about the past. “Contemporary ideologies, historian’s predilection, his choice of events, nature of his choice, his subjectivity, and his narrativity are all mutually interconnected variables that give rise to the contemporary myth, often called the ‘national history’. When a mythological story itself becomes the focal point of this contemporary myth, we witness an inverted project of history writing.”

The airing of the Ramayan serial coincided with the VHP’s campaign to demolish the Babri Masjid and build a ram temple in its site. The VHP’s political campaign was organised around the symbol of Lord Ram. The serial became the visual and ideological career of the campaign. Sequences in the serial itself seemed to make explicit reference to the VHP’s campaign. Battle scenes in the tele-epic were seen as models for Hindu militancy. Sagar interpolates themes that seem directly inspired by the Ram Janmabhumi campaign. When Ram arrives in Chitrakoot and sets up a house, he places a clod of earth wrapped in saffron cloth on a mantelpiece. Placing it next to a lamp he prays to it.

A.K.Ramanujan’s essay ‘Three hundred Ramayanas’ recently sparked a controversy when it was taken back from the Delhi University undergraduate History curriculum because of the pressure from the right wing political parties based on “hurt sentiments”. This is an example of how educational institutions often become a site for the ideological indoctrination of those in power. In an article published in The Hindu, titled ‘Indoctrination in the guise of education’, Rohit Dhankar writes, “Including Gita in the curriculum would mean giving preference to one religion, present pedagogical difficulties and an uncritical preaching of casteism through varna theory.”

Shambukh Vadh is a play (written by Brijesh) performed by the theatre group Jan Natya Munch. It tells the story of Shambukh, a dalit who teaches the vedas to the untouchables and women and is eventually killed by Lord Ram for his supposed crime. As a play Shambukh Vadh challenges the ideological discourse and the dominant narratives describing the Ram Rajya as the glorious past of India. It is a resistance and protest against this hegemonic Hindutva ideology.

In another article published in The Hindu titled ‘Rewriting the Nation State’, Suchitra Vijayan writes about the politics of rewriting history to fit the dominant political ideology of the time. In India where poverty and illiteracy are rampant, symbols have profound political implications. “The raising of Nathuram Godse’s statue is not an isolated act by fringe elements. It is a political manoeuvre, aimed at rewriting the history of the Indian polity.”

Historical interpretation is a product of contemporary ideology, which encourages the adoption of certain attitudes and theories about the past. “Contemporary ideologies, historian’s predilection, his choice of events, nature of his choice, his subjectivity, and his narrativity are all mutually interconnected variables that give rise to the contemporary myth, often called the ‘national history’. When a mythological story itself becomes the focal point of this contemporary myth, we witness an inverted project of history writing.”

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