William Dalrymple is a famous historian, especially when it comes to the history of Indian subcontinent. Some even consider him to be a credible historian and his volume of work, especially on the Mughal era, has won him a legion of fans and supporters. In 2007, he along with a few others started the Jaipur Literary Festival and it soon acquired a cult status among those in pursuit of serious academics. From Tarun Tejpal (later jailed for an alleged rape attempt) to Javed Akhtar, the festival attracted all the bright names from the world of books and academics. Dalrymple has thus quite naturally acquired a constituency as some sort of an India expert, especially in the western press, and is often invited to write on important issues related to India.
Consider what Dalrymple wrote just before the results of the Indian general elections were announced in May 2014. The world interest in India was at its peak and naturally Dalrymple was asked to provide a glimpse into the history related to the man who could be India’s next Prime Minister.
There are many noteworthy flashes of the genius of Dalrymple and the way he interprets history in a certain way. Quite apart from the deliberate slant in the entire piece, just consider the paragraph reproduced above.
The Babri Masjid was destroyed on 6th December 1992. The tenth anniversary of its destruction would be on 6th December 2002, actually more than 9 months AFTER the Godhra train carnage took place (27th February 2002) and therefore those burnt inside the train could NOT have been returning after celebrating 10 years of Babri demolition. It is not as if Dalrymple did not know this. But he counted on one thing – that most of his readers would not be aware of this, especially those of foreign origin, and even if being nominally aware of the actual date of Babri demolition, most would fail to see the sleight of creative history writing. For them, the credibility of Dalrymple would be enough to carry the day that the innocent men, women and children (15 children and 25 women) were deadly beasts who not only first destroyed an ancient holy mosque but were ghastly enough to even celebrate its destruction 10 years later. Perhaps they then even deserved their fate for being such insensitive creatures? And what fate was that? Of being burnt alive in a train.
And how did that train burning take place? Trust Dalrymple to tell us the ‘truth’ about that too – that a malfunctioning gas cylinder actually caused the train fire. Now this piece by Dalrymple has been written in 2014 and not in 2002 or 2006. Earlier, there could have been contesting claims about the cause of fire (although there were never really any contesting claims) but by 2014, a judicial determination had already been made that train fire was caused by a pre-planned conspiracy and 31 Muslims were convicted for it. 11 were given death penalty while 20 others were given life imprisonment. Again, was Dalrymple unaware of this? Most certainly not. So why would he indulge in such a hideous misinformation campaign about a historical fact?
Now, I had forgotten about this piece by Dalrymple but recently two more articles, that appeared in international press, caught my attention and that is when I remembered the original Dalrymple piece.
Hartosh Singh Bal in the Politico and Reihan Salam in Slate both wrote articles after Modi’s much publicized US visit. Since this was written for an international audience, references to Gujarat 2002 riots were mandatory. But consider how both Bal and Salam describe events related to the Godhra train carnage – either simply as a “burning train” or a “train fire” – not a case of ghastly pre-planned conspiracy of mass murder but more like an accidental fire?
This is then how narratives are manufactured, ‘truth’ is established and soon it becomes the established version. A vicious chain of each successive writer quoting from previous ‘truth-manufacturer’ soon forms, and ultimately, within a short span of time, the manufactured truth becomes THE truth while all other versions, including the real true version, either become controversial or versions of fanatics. Indeed, the power of such narrative setting is so seductive that many times even those not formally in the club of “truth-manufacturing” start believing the manufactured truth, as evidenced by the praise that Salam’s piece received from many quarters otherwise critical of such eminent writers !
2002 is not about some ancient or even medieval history where there is either a dispute between historians about the correct sequence of events or there is simply not even enough material to deduce a certain way. This is about 2002. About an incident which happened right before our eyes. In front of TV cameras. Events which have been documented in minute detail in thousands of hours of TV debate and print articles. And yet, within 12 years of the event, a historian does not balk at distorting the facts to suit a particular ideology. Others pick up the cue from him and soon it becomes the received wisdom. If this can be done about as recent an event as 2002 , imagine what would have been and has been done about ancient and medieval history? About Mughal history? About Islamic invasions and destruction of temples and universities? About converting historical bigots into inclusive rulers? In fact what we have is actually a LIVE demonstration of how history is distorted.
Arun Shourie recently exposed in great detail the dubious art of Indian history writing in relation to the burning down of Nalanda University (as per another eminent historian, Nalanda was not burnt down by Khilji but by ‘Hindu fanatics’ ). The modus operandi remains the same – the aggressors become the victims, the victims become the villains and the historians become eminent !