The Indian Express, May 4, 2016
India: A history of their own
Behind the Bhagat Singh controversy lies an attempt to impose one notion of nationalism
Written by Mridula Mukherjee
An excerpt from the latest edition of Alice in Wonderland, New Delhi, 2016: The Queen of Hearts is in a foul mood. She sees some people shouting, and asks, “The nation wants to know, what are they doing?” The reply is that they are students of a university called JNU who are shouting slogans. “Off with their heads,” she cries, “they are anti-national”. “Jo hukum, sarkar”, is the reply, and her hukum is carried out.
Ten weeks later, she again sees some people carrying lots of books and writing furiously. Incensed, she says, “The nation wants to know, who are they and what are they writing?” The reply is that they are teachers from the same infamous place, JNU, and they are writing books on history. “History? How dare they write on history? Do they not know that I have already passed orders that only those whose name has three letters, starts with R and ends with S, and has S in the middle, can henceforth write on history?” Flying into a temper, she says, “Off with their heads, destroy their books, they are anti-national”.
Persecution complex? Maybe. But we in Jawaharlal Nehru University certainly feel that we are being dealt more than our fair share of blame for everything “anti-national”. With students charged for sedition and facing physical threats, and given draconian punishments, with faculty members, even those long retired, being prevented from speaking in public, and now demands for destruction of and prohibition on sale of books written by JNU historians that have been on sale for decades, is it entirely unreasonable for us to wonder if there is a method to the madness, a rationality to the irrationality?
It is not the fact of the attack that is surprising, but the choice of the weapon. The allegation is that in a book written by Bipan Chandra along with his colleagues, Aditya Mukherjee, K.N. Panikkar, Sucheta Mahajan, and me (all current or former faculty of JNU), the term “terrorist” is used for Shaheed Bhagat Singh, and that this amounts to wilful defamation of a great national hero. The reality is that Chandra, who himself wrote the two chapters in the book on the revolutionary movement, held Bhagat Singh in very high esteem, and this was well known to everyone who had any interest in a serious study of Bhagat Singh. Chandra had, through great personal effort, retrieved from oblivion in the early 1970s, the now-famous article by Bhagat Singh titled “Why I am an Atheist”, published it as a pamphlet at his own cost, and organised its distribution in thousands at street corners by his students and associates, which included me, then a masters student at Delhi University. Ask any student of Bipan, as he was affectionately called by all, including his students, and they will vouch for the fact that Bhagat Singh was his lifelong hero. He was always full of anecdotes about Bhagat Singh the fine intellectual, the voracious reader, who was always pressing books from his bulging pockets on his comrades, always reminding you that his achievements were all the greater because his life was so short as he was hanged at the age of 23. “He compressed into years what others do in decades,” Chandra said.
Chandra was the first historian who treated Bhagat Singh and his fellow revolutionaries not just as brave young men willing to go to the gallows, but as serious thinkers, ideologues and visionaries, and subjected their ideas (and not just their actions) to critical analysis. He never used the word “terrorist” to describe them, even though it is a word they use themselves to discuss their own ideas and methods and strategy. He always used it with the adjective “revolutionary” attached to it, that is, “revolutionary terrorist”, even though it did not have a negative connotation at that time since terror was the method used against oppressors.
Later, as the connotation changed because the term became common for those who used terror against innocent people, he himself stopped using it, and in 2007, issued a public statement urging that it should be dropped. The book under attack still carried the earlier terminology because it is a 1988 edition and has never been revised, only reprinted. We as co-authors issued a statement on the very day the attack was initiated saying we want to change the term with immediate effect and wrote to the publishers of the English and Hindi versions to do so, and yet the sale of the book was prohibited by Delhi University, even as the RSS ideologue Dinanath Batra demanded destruction of the English copies, and criminal cases were filed against the authors.
As I said, the weapon and not the attack surprises us. If Chandra’s book was attacked because of its thorough analysis, over three chapters, of communalism of all hues — Hindu, Muslim or any other — one could understand the logic. A political ideology based on a divisive communal framework trying to pass off as nationalist was bound to be uncomfortable with a book that shows it up in its true colours. One could also understand if the book was attacked because an innocent reader might ask the hyper-nationalists of today, “What were you doing when the real battle for India’s freedom was being fought? How come your names don’t figure in the story I just read?” Or another confused reader may ask, “Pray, how do you call nationalist an ideology such as Hindutva (articulated first by V.D. Savarkar), which says that only those can belong to the nation whose fatherland and holy land are in India, thus excluding Christians and Muslims, whose holy places are also in Jerusalem or Rome or Arabia?”
Can nationalism be exclusionary and still be nationalism? Or is it communalism masquerading as nationalism? Could these be the real reasons for the book being targeted?
Maybe there is a method in the madness. And the Queen of Hearts is not as irrational as she seems. And knows exactly what she is doing.
The writer Mirdula Mukherjee was professor of history, JNU, Delhi.