-Kriti Tripathi

The discipline of history leads a dual life: an academic and a public one. History lives its academic life through “journals, reviews, specialized conferences, university departments, professional associations and so on.”[1] In India, where mostly the views of historians are not seen as representative of the past because universities do not carry much social authority, the interaction of these domains create tension. The basic categories of the discipline such as “research, facts, truth, evidence, archives- can be moulded by the interaction between history’s cloistered and public life.”[2] History writing in India cannot remain unaffected by identity politics associated with regions, religions, castes or sects. Popular “sentiments” create a barrier not only for historians but also for writers, movie-directors, artists etc. Under the garb of public sentiment some political parties use history as a weapon and play out their politics of divide and rule for the purpose of filling their vote banks. From the 1990s onwards popular commemoration of certain episodes have taken centre stage in Indian politics with violent and bloody consequences. History is assumed to be an embodiment of popular beliefs and memories and in situations when the truth breaks this web of imagination, violence seems inevitable with the urge to rewrite history. In the present paper I shall put forward three case studies to elucidate the practice of public contestation of academic history which is prevalent in India.


The Mosque-Temple Controversy in Ayodhya

Today, Indian Hindus and Muslims see themselves as distinct religious communities, essentially two separate nations occupying the same ground.[3] In post-independence era, a nationalist view emerged that Hindu beliefs were continually suppressed and its institutions repeatedly violated from 1206 C.E. onwards, with the establishment of Muslim rule. The dilapidated Hindu temples are shown as the visual proof of invaders’ atrocities on Hindus. The Babri Masjid was constructed in Ayodhya by one of Babur’s soldiers in 1528 C.E. Two major unanswered questions have sparked the controversy: Is Ayodhya a birthplace of Ram and was the mosque constructed on the ruins of a temple. Hindus answer both the questions in an affirmative tone. According to them the mosque was built on top of an 11th century temple marking the birthplace of Ram. The first clear evidence of dispute occurred in 1822. In September 1990, BJP leader L.K. Advani launched a nationwide campaign in support of the movement for the construction of Ram temple at that particular spot where the mosque stood. A 10,000 km. Ratha Yatra was organised with the slogan: mandir wohin banayenge (we will build the temple there and only there).

On 6 December, 1992, an infuriated Hindu mob demolished the mosque. The government’s decision to rebuild the mosque, announced in the first flush of post demolition guilt, was supported by only 35.7% of Indians, and Hindus disapproved of the decision by a margin of 59:30.[4] On 9th May,2011, the Supreme Court of India put a stay on Allahabad High Court verdict that directed division of 2.77 acres of the disputed land in three parts: among Hindus, Muslims and the Nirmohi Akhara. According to the verdict there was a temple of 12th century C.E. which was destroyed to build the mosque. The excavations of A.S.I. and its readings have been fully accepted even though these have been strongly disputed by other archaeologists and historians and since it is a matter of professional expertise on which there was a sharp difference of opinion, the categorical acceptance of one point of view, and that to in a simplistic manner, does little to build confidence in the verdict.[5]  According to Hindu fundamentalist groups: religion is a matter of belief and faith and their belief that Ram’s temple was located at that exact spot gives a sanction to their violent program.


The Laine Controversy

Various development plans, airports, railway stations, public parks, squares, schools and universities in Maharashtra are named after the historical figure of Shivaji Bhonsle. In 1674 C.E. Shivaji crowned himself as Chhatrapati with the aim to establish Hindavi Swarajya in order to fight against the Mughal ruler Aurangzeb. By the final decades of the 19th century Shivaji came to be celebrated in poetry, drama and historical fiction. Bal Gangadhar Tilak started Shivaji festival, a public commemoration of his birth. Maratha historical memory has been crucial not only to the creation of a modern regional Marathi identity in Western India but also to the successful articulation of that identity within wider Hindu and Indian national imaginations.[6]

On January 5, 2004 a group called the Sambhaji Brigade attacked the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune. It was triggered by the publication of James W. Laine’s book “ Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India.” Some prominent historians and politicians charged that the study defamed the memory of Shivaji’s mother Jijabai and his father Shahji. Laine wrote that Shivaji’s parents lived apart for a long time, adding that, “Maharashtrians tell jokes naughtily suggesting that his guardian Konddeo was his biological father.” This was interpreted as if Laine wanted to give an expression of Shivaji’s illegitimacy. His book sparked a major controversy in India leading Oxford University Press to withdraw it from the local markets.  Laine had done some research at Pune’s Institute and he had thanked the institute and some scholars affiliated with it in his acknowledgement section and thus it came under a violent attack. Even the unique objects of historical and literary importance were not spared. 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 site of Mohenjo-Daro, and a very early copy of the Rig Veda—the world’s oldest sacred text.[7]


The Padmavati Controversy

The story that has been in circulation since centuries describes Padmini, the wife of Chittor’s king Ratansen, as a woman of unparalleled beauty. In the year 1303 Chittor was attacked by Delhi’s sultan Allauddin Khalji, apparently to acquire Padmini. He wanted to have a glimpse of her and in lieu of which he promised to lift the siege. However, he could only see the reflected image of her as the Rajput woman did not allow a stranger to even look at her. Captivated by her charm, he decided to win her and captured Ratansen by deceit. Eventually the Rajput army was defeated by the sultan. Padmini and other Rajput women committed jauhar in order to protect themselves from Muslims.

In the month of January this year, activists of the Rajput Karni Sena attacked the sets of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film Padmavati. The whole episode was based on the assumption by Rajputs that Bhansali was going to shoot a dream sequence in which physical love between Padmavati and Khalji was going to be manifested. The director negated all such charges. Karni Sena is keen to protect the lineage of their ancestors from any misrepresentation. The Rajputs portray themselves as the ones who resisted the Turkish and the Mughal rule at the cost of their lives. The spirit is claimed to have also resided in Rajput women who are said to have committed Sati and jauhar when faced with the prospect of loss of honour at the hands of Muslims.[8] The memory of marriages between Rajput princesses and Mughal rulers is not often easily accepted by the community today as it represented Hindu capitulation to a Muslim empire.

Ramya Sreenivasan in her book, The Many Lives of a Rajput Queen: Heroic Pasts in India c. 1500-1900, makes it clear that Padmini was a fictional figure created in the poem ‘Padmavat’ written by Malik Mohammad Jayasi in the 16th century. It describes Padmini as the beautiful princess of Simhala-dwipa. She had a talking parrot Hiramani who, on being berated by the king of Simhala- dwipa, flew away to Chittor and informed king Ratansen of the beauty of Padmini. Being completely mesmerized by Hiramani’s account of Padmini, the king wished to marry her and managed to do so after a long series of dramatic battles and adventurous trials. Between 16th and 19th century at least 12 Persian and Urdu translations or adaptations of Jayasi’s Padmavat were produced. The idea that Padmini was a fictitious figure, or a Sufic ideal, is unimportant to Rajput imagination as to them she is as real as the famed Rajput valour .[9]



Few days back the education minister of Rajasthan Vasudev Devnani claimed that it was Maharana Pratap who won the battle of Haldi ghati in 1576 and not Akbar. “Some books on history say that Akbar was great but various research show that it was Maharana Pratap who was great. But it is obvious only one of them could be great,” he said.  A few years ago Ashutosh Gowarikar’s historical movie Jodhaa Akbar was banned for some days in various states on the charge of hurting the sentiments of the Rajput community and twisting history. According to them Jodha was not Akbar’s wife. Presently and as well as in the past the NDA government has tried to “saffronise” the content of NCERT books, that is to mould the history according to Hindu nationalist views and in accordance with party’s political views.

The popular view depicts Muslims as outsiders and invaders who do not have right on Hindustan and various programs such as “Ghar-Vapasi” are organised to bring back people to Hindu faith. The Muslims of India should not be held accountable for the actions of Mahmud of Ghazni (971-1030), Allauddin Khalji (1296-1316) or Aurangzeb (1658-1707). Even judging their actions as atrocities according to the norms of the contemporary society, would be an injustice as L.P. Hartley puts it rightly in his novel “The Go- Between”: “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.” History is what had happened in the past and not what would have happened. Indians of all faiths must accept the reality of their history, cherish it and take care to preserve it instead of engaging in efforts to rewrite it because trying to undo the past and remedy wrongs that go back several centuries in time will only wreck the present for all concerned.[10] To conclude the essay I would like to quote Romila Thapar’s words: “What happened in history, happened. It cannot be changed.  We cannot change the past to justify the politics of the present.”



  1. Chakrabarty, Dipesh, The Calling of History: Sir Jadunath Sarkar and His Empire of Truth, The University of Chicago Press, 2015.
  2. Deshpande, Prachi, Historical Memory and Identity in Western India 1700-1960, Permanent Black, 2007.
  3. Thakur, Ramesh, Ayodhya and the Politics of India’s Secularism: A Double Standards Discourse, Asia Survey, Vol. 33, No. 7, The Regents of University of California, 1993.
  4. Thapar, Romila, The Verdict on Ayodhya: A historian’s Perspective, The Hindu, Oct 2, 2010.
  5. Mukhia ,Harbans, Myth, History and Nationalism: The Temple- Mosque Controversy in India.
  6. Lee Novetzke, Christian, The Laine Controversy and the Study of Hinduism, International Journal of Hindu Studies 8, World Heritage Press India, 2005.
  7. Dalrymple, William, India: The War Over History, The New York Review of Books, April 7, 2005.
  8. Talbot, Cynthia, Inscribing the Other, Inscribing the Self: Hindu- Muslim Identities in Pre-Colonial India, Cambridge University Press,
  9. Kothiyal, Tanuja, 29 Jan, 2017, http://www.scroll.in
  10. Sreenivasan, Ramya, The Many Lives of a Rajput Queen: heroic Pasts in India c. 1500-1900, University of Washington Press, 2007.
  11. Jasper, Daniel, Commemorating the “Golden Age” of Shivaji in Maharashtra, India and the Development of Maharashtra Public Politics, Journal of Political and Military Sociology, Vol. 31, No. 2, 2003.


[1] Dipesh Chakrabarty, The Calling of History: Sir Jadunath Sarkar and His Empire of Truth, The University of Chicago Press, 2015, p.7.

[2]  Ibid, p.8.

[3]  Cynthia Talbot, Inscribing the Other, Inscribing the Self: Hindu- Muslim Identities in Pre-Colonial India, Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 693.

[4]  India Today, 15 Jan. 1993, p. 20.

[5]  Romila Thapar, The Verdict on Ayodhya: A Historian’s Perspective, The Hindu, Oct. 2,2010.

[6]  Prachi Deshpande, Creative Pasts; Historical Memory and Identity in Western India 1700-1960, Permanent Black, 2007, p.2.

[7]  William Dalrymple, India: The War Over History, The New York Review of Books, April 7, 2005 Issue.

[8]  Tanuja Kothiyal, 29 June, 2017, http://www.scroll.in

[9] Ibid.

[10]  Ramesh Thakur, Ayodhya and the politics of India’s Secularism : A Double Standards Discourse, Asian Survey, Vol. 33 , No. 7, University of California Press,1993