Rewriting the past, blotting the present

In the year marking the 68th anniversary of India’s independence, Kuldip Nayar laments current efforts to re-shape elements of the country’s history and undermine its ethos of secularism.

Understandably, there is a sense of horror over the Bhartiya Janata Party government’s decision to ‘modernise’ the Jawaharlal Nehru Museum at Tin Murti in New Delhi. The BJP spokesman has explained that the present museum tells only the Nehru side of India’s national struggle for independence, not the entire story.
Ironically, the very people making this demand are those who did not contribute in the slightest to the national movement. Their role, if any, helped the British rulers.

What the BJP has in mind is to saffronise the institution. The party made a similar attempt when Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was at the helm, but he firmly resisted every move to reinterpret history. He recognised the role Nehru had played in winning freedom for India and gave him full credit for it. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a different kettle of fish. He openly seeks guidance from the Rashtriya Syamsewak Sangh (RSS), which is critical of the national struggle because it was never part of it.

‘Modernising’ the Nehru museum under the Modi administration means the induction of outdated ideas into history. Nehru moulded the nation after independence and gave it a scientific temperament, and his biggest contribution was the concept of secularism. At the time of partition when Pakistan chose to be an Islamic state, he kept India secular. Probably, this is what the BJP does not like, and why it wants to change the very character of the museum. Why does the party not simply have a separate museum, where it can present history in the way it wants?


THE REAL HERO? Mahatma Gandhi (l) and his killer Nathuram Godse
THE REAL HERO? Mahatma Gandhi (l) and his killer Nathuram Godse

Not long ago, I was at Pune and found to my dismay that the Agha Khan Palace, where our British rulers used to detain the icons of our freedom struggle, including Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, had been converted into an environment park. Now I have no grudge against parks, but such places as the Agha Khan Palace, consecrated by the nation’s blood, should be preserved in their original state so that the coming generations can see them as they were. Decoration, however honest in intent, extinguishes the original spirit.

In contrast, the Jalianwala Bagh at Amritsar has been preserved exactly as it was. It retains an air of martyrdom and still maintains the centrality of the well. When one sees it, one can imagine how the people must have jumped into it to escape the relentless firing by the British-led soldiers. They were punished simply because of the ‘humiliation’ of one British woman who heard a hissing sound while passing through a bazaar. Protesters at the Jalianwala Bagh were doing nothing more than protesting against British rule. Theirs was a struggle for independence. Sadly, after the brutal killing of hundreds of people, the remark made by one British soldier was that they wished they’d had more ammunition.

Places like the Jalianwala Bagh are our real temples. They remind us the pain and pangs of our national struggle and of those who sacrificed all in the fight against the British. These places are in no way less important than the scriptures which we revere and cherish.

Unfortunately, places of worship—temples, mosques, churches and gurdwaras—are becoming greater in number and more vulgar in decoration. Followers have mistakenly come to believe that the use of marble or gold makes a place more precious to worshipers.

Unfortunately, buildings which did not contribute at all to India’s struggle for freedom have come to occupy positions of importance. Still worse are the efforts to substitute the ethos of pluralism with the ideology of parochialism. It is unthinkable how any party or individual can demand a memorial for Nathuram Godse, the man who killed Mahatma Gandhi.

The Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), an outfit that spreads Hindutva feelings, should understand and appreciate the emotions which misguided the Muslims at that time. Even if it is assumed that the Muslims knowingly marshalled behind the demand for Pakistan, how are Indian Muslims to blame for what happened nearly 70 years ago?

When we do not blame the generation that supported the British, why should we pick on the Muslims whose forefathers helped create Pakistan? An average Hindu has not forgiven the Muslims for the dissection of India. At a time of simmering tension with Pakistan, many Hindus still suspect the Muslims.

Even otherwise, the Hindus maintain a distance from the Muslims. Social contact between the two communities is virtually absent. Both live in worlds of their own. It was different in my generation. We visited one another’s houses and ate together without feeling that we were doing anything extraordinary.

Today things have changed. A Muslim woman professor told me that one day a few Hindu girls stood up in the classroom and asked her why she was in India when she should have gone to Pakistan. No one in the class objected to the girls’ remarks. I cannot blame the education system as a whole, but I do blame the teachers who created an atmosphere in which the girls could ask such questions.

True, partition on the basis of religion has told upon India’s ethos of secularism and lessened the importance of Muslims in Indian affairs. But this feeling goes against the letter and spirit of our constitution. We are not a Hindu rashtra but a secular, democratic nation, as the preamble of our constitution says.

The BJP does not seem to realise that it does not have any Muslim icons in its ranks. I hope that things will change for the better. Yet how can they when the party wants to establish a Hindu rashtra and keeps the Muslim community at a distance? Sadly, the party is trying to change the very ethos of our country. Even in the midst of our national struggle, we were conscious that the state whose creation was being sought-Pakistan-would be an Islamic state. Still, we declared that India, after the British left, would be a secular state and we adhered to that undertaking. Let us still adhere to it.

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