Religious Sentiments and writing Indian History: The Role of Fake News in India | Adamas University

Fake News, History

Religious Sentiments and writing Indian History: The Role of Fake News in India

I begin my paper from a popular African saying and which was written on the walls of the school of social sciences, JNU where I spent much of my student life, i.e., until the lions have their own story teller, history will always glorify the hunter’.

India, which is a land of diversity and which is known for having people who speak differently with many cultural variations, eating habits and most importantly they practice different religions. It is a composition of multi-ethnic groups with Hindu majority. This is because historically speaking Culture is a changing variable in India and new ideas are constantly adopted replacing the old ones that make the country India unique, beautiful and secular.

Nevertheless, many of the dominant cultures of the past have been so persistent that the impact of abrupt change has ragged their beliefs and value system. However, the constitution of India explicitly declared India as a secular country, religious sentiments have always been made a provocative issue among the religious communities to sprawl a fiery discourse and accuse each other creating disharmony and discrepancy. As a result of this in 2017 (April) Supreme Court of India concerned by the misuse of the Section 295A of Indian Penal Code which provides up to three years jail term for hurting religious sentiments limited the application of the penal provision to deliberate and malicious acts rather than casual observations that are not driven by mischievous intent. But this problem is more severe when it comes to writing down India’s history particularly the history of religions in India.

Recently a passionately disputed battle is taking place over the interpretation of Indian history. Debates about rival descriptions of Indian prehistory or the struggles among the religions of ancient times and medieval South Asia- the nature of rows and arguments that should be heard anywhere else at scholarly conferences- have in India become the subject of political rallies and mob riots and all types of violence.  

In this background we have the emergence of the fake news becoming institutionalized, which makes situation even worst. More that the fake news, it’s the false narrative of what has actually happened or happening has more serious repercussions. My paper is thus based on some not very old incidences and their impact on the Indian history writings.

What we have seen in the past?

On January 5, 2004, an incident at one of India’s leading centers of historical research, the Bhandarkar Oriental Institute in the town of Pune, southeast of Mumbai, demonstrated how serious things had become. (Times of India, January 6, 2004)

Just after 10 A.M, as the staff were opening up the library, a group of more that twenty jeeps drew up. Armed with crowbars, around two hundred Hindu militants poured into the institute, cutting the telephone lines. Then they began to tear the place apart. These people annulled the library shelves, and for the next few hours they kicked around the books and danced on them, damaging an estimated 18,000 volumes before the police arrived.

More seriously still, they severely damaged a first century manuscript of the great Hindu epic the Mahabharata, as well as a set of palm leaf inscriptions, some important relics from the prehistoric sites of Mohenjodaro, and a very early copy of the Rig Veda- the world’s oldest sacred text- once used by the great German scholar Max Muller. (The Hindu, February 01. 2004)

The second incident took place when (I was a student) in the University of Delhi on 26 February, 2008 some people who called themselves ‘activists’ allegedly manhandled the HoD of the History Department, Prof. Jafri. (The Hindu, February 26, 2008) These activists abused him before they ravaged his office and they also threw stones into the classrooms and broke doors, windows and furniture of the department in the North campus.

While the reason of the devastations done on the Bhandarkar Institute was the brief mention of the institute in the acknowledgements of a short scholarly book, Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India by James W. Laine, a professor at Macalester College in Minnesota. This book, which had been praised by scholars when it appeared in the spring of 2003, was a study of Shivaji Bhonsle (1627-1680), a near divine ruler, the Hindu guerrilla leader from western India who successfully challenged the Mughal Empire and eventually had himself crowned as Chatrapati (Lord of the Umbrella) of an independent Maratha state.

In his book, Laine suggested that Shivaji was not a legitimate son of his father and that his biological father was Dadaji Konddev who was actually his guardian. This demonstration was a result of a horrified review, which was published, in a Marathi weekly magazine, and a series of protests began. In October in the same year, an elderly Sanskrit scholar whom Laine had recognized in his acknowledgments was beaten up and his face had smeared with tar. To anticipate the Oxford University Press withdrew further violence and in November the author issued the book from the Indian market, and an apology for causing offense.

Opening his campaign in Maharasthra, the then prime minister of India, issued a ‘warning to all foreign authors that they must not play with our national pride. We are prepared to take action against the foreign author (Laine) in case the state government fails to do so.”

In the second case also we heard about the similar reason. Some groups (activists) have raised objections to the inclusion of an essay by scholar A.K Ramanujan titles ‘Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three thoughts on translation’ for the course on ‘Ancient Indian Culture’. They claimed ‘objectionable’ references to Hindu gods.  The Academic Council of Delhi University dropped this celebrated essay on the Ramayana from the B.A History (Honours) course shows that religious sentiment hurt’ theory has gained such attention.

In both the cases the problem of the protestors was that these historical writings hurt the sentiments of the ‘Hindu community’ and therefore it should be withdrawn. There is hardly an academic demand as there is no possibility of explanation or debate. And quite clearly, the way in which the activity was organized, it was an act of political opposition to the History and its writing. In both the cases the article and the book were withdrawn. Was it because the matter came up in the court or it was taken to the media or both? Surprisingly both the matters were settled out of court.

So why did this happened? It’s because of the media and their false projection of the popular sentiment that makes violence legitimate means of protest. What this initial action and the reaction of the state or university raise are the question whether groups beating up faculty or vandalizing library can change courses and books or syllabi. And these I think is very fundamental question that people like me in the academics have to face and answer and take a position on.

What should we realize?

Fake media and the fake narrative in fact create a category of people who don’t take the trouble to read and to study and to understand what the matter is before they just stand up and start shouting and screaming and wanting the removal of it. What people don’t recognize is that the story of mythical hero Ram or mythical heroin like Padmavati or the even the historical man Shivaji, extends over a huge historical period. So inevitably there will be variations, modifications and additions to their story.

Then the questions arises that why is the discipline of history so important for the current establishment? One reason is that since history of India is one of the oldest in the world and with so much diversity that any group aspiring power to rule will need to have a historical legitimisation. They need to divide society and for this history writing become crucial. In the present scenario as academia has been questioning those concepts, there has been no similar move to change perceptions in the wider society. To a certain extent the visual and the print media is to be blamed because they have nurtured and fostered the impulse of there being definitive versions of every single major text or person in our Indian cultural heritage and they have totally underplayed the fact that there have been differences and variations.

The real problem is that so much individual and sometimes political capital gets invested in certain narratives, that evidence is simply not updated. Quoting authority is seen as more important than primary material. The disparagement for facts, in turn, has discouraged the systematic checking of primary evidence. These groups have continuously sought popular acceptance on the plea that they are the exclusive custodians of nationalism, based on a national identity that is unambiguously Hindu.

Conclusion

In conclusion it is important to burst fake news in India because we are becoming used to taking myths as fact, which poses danger to each and every person of this country. The print and television industry has undergone a massive expansion since the 1990s. There are now more than 100,000 newspapers and magazines. India has over 400 news channels in various languages and another 150 channels are awaiting clearance. In short, there are more news channels, newspapers and digital outlets than ever in independent India- but paradoxically also perhaps fewer voices that are ready to stand up and be counted.

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