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Real people are censored, the anonymous say what they want: Historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam

Real people are censored, the anonymous say what they want: Sanjay Subrahmanyam
Sanjay Subrahmanyam, historian and author. (TOI photo)
Sanjay Subrahmanyam has been called India’s best historian. Author of highly acclaimed works like ‘The Career and Legend of Vasco da Gama’, he writes on the early modern period and has always steered clear of being bracketed with either leftist or rightwing scholars. He tells TOIthat the professional historian is no longer safe in India.

Why did you call your latest book, ‘Is “Indian Civilisation” a Myth?’

It’s interesting that on Amazon a number of people who haven’t even read the book have been ranting simply against the title, citing the achievements of ancient Indian metallurgy! For me, the word ‘civilisation’ can be problematic. It allows some people to lord it over others, claiming they alone have ‘civilisation’. The only areas really allowed to have a civilisation, it seems, are Europe or the ‘West’, the Islamic world, India and China. There is a hierarchy between those allowed to have a civilisation and those who aren’t. For example, what about the idea of African or Southeast Asian civilisations? Also, the word civilisation usually implies values frozen in time, and it’s a word which can be used to shut out other people, such as shutting out Muslims from Europe by claiming they are from another civilisation. Culture to me is a far more flexible word, allowing for change. Civilisation is often used as a weapon, as a stick to beat others with.

Is history being used in India today for political purposes?

In several countries a critical approach to history is integrated into education. Students are trained to think critically about history. That doesn’t happen much here. History for some is almost a belief, a faith, like a religion, in a set of ‘facts’. The professional historian thus finds himself up against this ‘religious’ approach to history. There is of course always a tension between history and memory but today in India there is an aggressive attempt to deny the professional historian and his/her practice any space. The professional historian is simply not safe in this institutional setting. You can’t for example portray Tipu Sultan as a complex figure, or state easily that one needs to look at the eclectic figure that Aurangzeb was in his early years, with ties for example to a Gorakhnathi math. Or that many Hindus served in high positions in Aurangzeb’s administration.

When you see what happened to Wendy Doniger’s book, are you worried about the fate of intellectuals today?

As far as Doniger is concerned, it’s the usual love-hate relationship Indians have with foreigners. Wendy is pilloried but another far less credible foreigner David Frawley is worshipped. But today even being Indian is not enough protection. There is no guarantee that anyone’s work won’t be pulled and pulped. There is no guarantee of any protection for anyone writing a serious work or making a serious argument. The publishers are very scared, and they have caved in.

How do you react to historian Ramachandra Guha’s recent statement that this is the most anti-intellectual government India has ever had?

The BJP has always had an intellectual deficit. Their best intellectuals are apparently Arun Shourie and Madhu Kishwar. That’s about as good as they get. The present ICHR chief has no credibility among professional historians, but if they could have got somebody better maybe they would have. They’re scraping the bottom of the barrel when it comes to intellectuals. They don’t even have good Sanskritists. They’ve built a small base among economists though, and maybe some scientists. The issue also is, has the BJP-RSS become ‘normalised’ and more pragmatic with the experience of power. Maybe in economic policy they have; there is pragmatism in, for example, having Raghuram Rajan as RBI governor. But on culture the lunatic fringe still calls the shots. So they have this curious juxtaposition of Bhagwat and Bhagwati, as Pranab Bardhan puts it.

Is this government failing to protect Indian pluralism?

In India the Muslim population is depressed; on many social indicators they are under the national average and yet they are supposed to be the problem. The real question is, what do the BJP and RSS want to do with India’s Muslims (or Christians), what do they imagine the long-term prospects of minorities are in India? I think there should be a debate on this, and that they should come clean. The RSS perhaps wants to wipe the slate clean and send all Muslims to Pakistan. But what is the BJP’s long-term policy towards Muslims, beyond simply the rage? What do they want Muslims to do? Wear a distinctive mark on their foreheads proclaiming they are second-class citizens? I don’t think the Sangh Parivar overall knows what it wants on Muslims, beyond simply knowing that they are angry about them.

Does the Indian public discourse today worry you?

You know Indians are known to be the most abusive users of the internet. Indian trolling is known widely to be highly vitriolic. Yet today if there is an authoritative work, say on Shivaji, Golwalkar or Annadurai written by a real historian, that work might well be censored. So there’s a very interesting paradox. Those who are real people, with real emails and real names are totally censored, those who are anonymous are empowered to say whatever they want. Anonymous people are free to scream out their rage but real people with a name are told to say nothing. This to me is another post-modern paradox of authorship. Real people have the right to say nothing, anonymous people have a right to say everything. So we are becoming a society of cowards. It’s a terrifying idea.

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