Politically expedient histories: When fringe threatens to become mainstream in India

Kangana Ranaut is just one offshoot of an ecology where fact and truth have been systematically torn away from the national discourse to be replaced by ideologically tailored half-truths and lies, writes Mayank Chhaya for South Asia Monitor

Mayank Chhaya Nov 13, 2021
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Kangana Ranaut at Times Now (Photo: Twitter)

It is both tempting and necessary to denounce Bollywood actress Kangana Ranaut’s lunatic observation (at a summit organised by Times Now, a news channel) that India became independent only in 2014, and the time before that was a largesse given by the British colonial power. 

However, what is more urgent is to highlight that in the last seven years a political ecology has been created where willful and egregious ignorance is not just accepted but even celebrated along partisan lines. The public Ranaut is a symptom as well as a product of both widespread and deeply entrenched malaise where people across India have become sanguine in their often baseless self-assurance. Having an opinion is happily confused with possessing knowledge and froth enjoys premium over facts. 

The fact that an artist who has just been conferred with Padma Shri, the country’s fourth-highest civilian honour, feels so comfortable spouting that drivel and is even lapped up by a significant number of Indians is a testament to this deeply disturbing debasement of intellectual integrity.  

Dishonoring Padma Shri 

One seriously wonders whether she and many of those who applaud her for no reason other than that it would spite political opponents are even aware that the Padma honors were instituted in 1954. That was barely seven years after the country became independent and in its collective wisdom decided to introduce the honors to instill a sense of nationhood and create cultural discernment. For someone to wear that honor and immediately besmirch the tradition that created it is deplorable. 

The absurd narrative that India predating 2014, when Narendra Modi became Prime Minister and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) began railroading the national discourse, was nothing more than a recipient of alms palmed off by the British has the potential of gaining political traction. It is particularly so at a time when a vast constituency of people, hopped up on social media fantasies, falsehoods, conspiracies and barefaced lies, are a captive audience. 

There appears to be a polar switch between what was once known as the semi-literate fringe and what was once considered the well-informed mainstream. Now the fringe is the mainstream as illustrated by what Ranaut said. 

Millions fought for free India 

In a reasonably normal world, a claim like hers would not merit any counter because it is so monumentally ignorant but the times we live demand that it is addressed in a broader context. Let us disregard tens of millions of people, if not in excess of 100 million, who were directly engaged in a do-or-die battle for India’s independence for decades. Let us just focus on one epic and epochal figure of that movement, someone the BJP and its extended Hinduist affiliates, have quite disingenuously appropriated as their national inspiration—Vallabhbhai Patel better known as Sardar Patel. 

There was once a time, not too long ago in historical terms that there may not have been India as it exists today but a fractious collection of nearly 600 princely states. If a nation-state called India emerged in 1947 from the staggering ruins of close to 200 years of colonial plunder, to a significant extent the credit settles on one man – Vallabhbhai Patel. 

In recent years, there has been growing popular awareness and eminently justifiable celebration of the defining role that Patel played in bringing together sometimes vain, sometimes egotistic, sometimes deluded and almost always utterly self-absorbed rulers of 565 princely states to join the Indian union. A country of some 300 million in 1947, impoverished by two centuries of brutal colonial exploitation and torn asunder by religious and cultural bloodletting, it needed the quietly firm and unassailable resolve of Patel to re-emerge. Patel had to use a combination of statecraft, flattery, coercion and whatever else he was required to muster to forge a nation-state out of what by the time the colonial British rule ended in India was, for want of a better word, a bloody mess. 

There is no parallel in world history to Patel’s astonishing enterprise in forging a union out of a collection of self-serving kingdoms and principalities. 

Offshoot of an ecology

To so churlishly describe India’s independence before 2014 as “bheekh” (alms) is to stomp over the work Patel did in the run-up to and immediate aftermath of 1947. I cite Patel only as a powerful example that might help disabuse the consumers of this ludicrous narrative being built up because they have suddenly discovered greatness in him. The idea that leaders of the caliber of Patel and hundreds of others would be so weak-kneed and gullible as to accept a fiendish British plan to palm off India a largesse in the name of independence is revolting. 

India’s independence movement was a uniquely mass movement that drew in its folds an entire populace in one form or another. Personal and familial sacrifices took place at every level of Indian society in the service of that movement. To call their success a largesse is a national affront. 

Kangana Ranaut is just one offshoot of an ecology where fact and truth have been systematically torn away from the national discourse to be replaced by ideologically tailored half-truths and lies. However, it would be foolish to demand that she be singled out for punishment because she is by no means an exception but, sadly, part of the new rule. In the grand scheme of nation-building, her observation may be infra dig but in so much as it represents a national trend, it is profoundly self-defeating. What is required is a national project to make India’s vast citizenry educated beyond politically expedient histories. 

(The writer is a Chicago-based journalist, author and filmmaker. The views expressed are personal)