On the evening of May 17, NDTV invited Amish Tripathi, a writer of fantasy fiction, to discuss whether India should go digging up the past vis-à-vis the Gyanvapi mosque. What ensued was 17 minutes of a pantomime where Tripathi made a series of ahistorical statements. Unsurprisingly, since he is by no means a historian. Imagine if the TV news channel had invited a fantasy fiction writer to talk about how to develop hypersonic space vehicles?
Yet, to examine a question of history in a country full of historians with years of astute scholarship, NDTV decided to call Tripathi who claimed, for one, that the Mughals were foreigners because they spoke Turkic and Persian, which unlike Urdu are not Indian languages. This is absurd, not least because Urdu developed as the lingua franca of Mughal army camps from a confluence of Persian, Turkic, Arabic, Sanskrit and Prakrit. Indeed, “Urdu” is a Turkic word for “camp”. So the people that Tripathi labels foreigners were those who gave India one of its top modern languages.
Further, the Mughals “don’t look Indian” to Tripathi but “Chinese” because they had Central Asian origins and hailed themselves as the Timurids, the descendents of Timur, the 14th century conqueror. Not only is this a racist statement that went unchallenged on national TV, it betrays Tripathi’s lack of understanding of India’s history and diversity. How one could determine what an “Indian” looks like in a country of 1.4 billion faces of varied features, skin colours and body types is a riddle that perhaps only a fantasy fiction writer can resolve.
As for the notion that the Mughals were foreigners, the history of the Indian subcontinent is a story of a long series of migrations. Notably, starting around 1500 BC, arrived in the subcontinent and developed the Vedic culture. In the first century AD, the Yuezhi nomads from China came and launched the Kushan empire, whose most famous ruler, Kanishka, is credited with convening the fourth Buddhist Council. The givers of the Shaka calendar, the Shakas, migrated around the same time from the region of Sistan.
If, by Tripathi’s absurd logic, anyone who came to the subcontinent from outside its current borders was a foreigner, then the giver of the Vedas, the convener of the fourth Buddhist Council and the maker of the Shaka calendar were all foreigners. It clearly is not so. India’s current borders cannot define the country’s history.
Tripathi is committing the ahistorical sin of superimposing the present onto the past. The Mughals who ruled longer than the Kushanas and most of whose emperors including Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan, and Aurangzeb were born and raised in the subcontinent are as much an indelible part of India’s history as the composers of the Vedas.
Tripathi ended his hilarious tirade against the Turks and Mughals by comparing the ongoing campaign in India to establish the religion of historical monuments with the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, and declared that the majority community needed redressal for “historical pain”. What he meant by “historical pain” he didn’t explain. Which, of course, is par for such rhetoric.
The ahistorical nightmare unleashed on national television by Tripathi and NDTV underlines the necessity for scholars with knowledge of the subject to drive conversations on contested matters of the present and the past. Especially at a time when history is being deployed to sow discord in the present to advance a political project.
Ruchika Sharma is pursuing a doctorate in history from the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.
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