Should history be rewritten? Well, you cannot mess with the facts can you? Mahatma Gandhi died on January 30, 1948 and nothing will change that. But was he assassinated or merely killed?

I have had many RSS ideologues describe the killing of Gandhi as `vadh’ (as in the killing of rakshasas) rather than `hatya’ as it really was but then it depends on who is writing that history.

Nowhere is this contradiction more apparent than in the historical accounts of the killing of Chhatrapati Sambhaji, the son of Shivaji Maharaj – seventeenth century Mughal historians believe he insulted both Islam and the Koran and so Aurangzeb put him to death in a most tortuous fashion. They do not deny that cruelty but justify the barbarism on grounds of religion. Maratha historians, on the other hand, held Sambhaji out to be a brave king standing firmly between Aurangzeb and the complete Islamisation of the Deccan. According to them, he was tortured to death because he – rightly – refused to compromise with his principles and all that he stood for by embracing Islam and Aurangzeb as his ruler.

So I could not agree more with HT Media advisor Vir Sanghvi at a live debate at the Tata Literature Live! Festival underway in Bombay this week, that, of course, history must be rewritten. For example do we go with the British interpretation of Indian history that Dravidians were all dark natives of the subcontinent who were pushed downward to the south by invading Aryans or do we update the historical facts in view of the discovery of Mohenjodaro and Harappa that proved we were a far civilised race long before the Brits and their fellow Europeans had climbed down the trees and come out of the caves they were living in when we already had advanced cities in India?

But when the likes of Dinanath Batra attempt to turn myth into history and the Prime Minister of a nation like India propagates that myth by stating that we had plastic surgery and test tube babies in the days of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, which are great epics but just that – epics – what does one say?

But for once in my life, I agreed with both sides of the debate – with Kumar Ketkar and Dileep Padgaonkar, both senior journalists, opposing the rewriting of history as a dangerous game. Can we really afford to contaminate the minds of young children who have no way of distinguishing myth from history and fact from fiction?

In the course of the debate Ketkar raised the issue of Pakistani history books which begin with the creation of Pakistan and have no mention of India and its freedom struggle. No wonder, while I was at a mid-career course in Paris, my Pakistani colleague was desperate that I secure for him CDs of the Bhisham Sahni-Govind Nihalani Doordarshan drama series Tamas which is as chilling an indictment of the politics of partition as any. The serial had been banned in Pakistan and as my colleague told me his family and friends were eager to know what really preceded partition in visual terms. Even then I felt bad for Pakistani children growing up without a proper grounding of their, well, background and got him the CDs – I hope Tamas corrected the perspective for many of that country’s citizens.

Of course, people like Batra would love to expunge large portions of Indian history, particularly those relating to Muslim invasion of the country. But like Amish Tripathi arguing on the side of Sanghvi said, why must we conflate Indian Muslims with the conquerors when we do not equate Indian Christians with invading British?

After all, when Krishnadevaraya defeated five Muslim kingdoms surrounding his Vijayanagaram, he described himself not as the conqueror of Muslims but the conqueror of Turks because that is what the Muslim invaders then were. But left to the Batra types all references by Krishnadevaraya to himself as the vanquisher of Turks, without any reference to their religion, itself would be expunged or misinterpreted or worse.

So while one cannot take a rigid position against the rewriting of history, such rewriting is best left to scholars who are put through the wringer for purposes of substantiation and evidence on which they base their interpretations rather than perpetrate fantastic myths of Lord Rama flying in aeroplanes long before even the Wright brothers had invented the flying machine or plastic surgery being so advanced in mythological times that even a severed head could be transplanted and rejoined without any consequences to the brains of that individual!

However, as the current dispensation weighs in on the side of such fantastic interpretation and rewriting, I noticed that a full house at the debate was mostly queasy about allowing such historians to get away with wrong rewriting and called for politicians and their cohorts to keep away from such activities.

But like Padgaonka said, in the writing of history one must be conscious that those who control the past control the future and those who control the present control the past. I guess we are doomed to go round in circles on this one!

And I can only repeat the famous warning: those who forget their history are condemned to repeat it – again and again!

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