Remembering and forgetting in Karnataka

Janaki Nair
History has been weaponised afresh in the electoral war zone of Karnataka.What set the ball rolling was the first idiomatic reference by Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah to the historic face-off between Pulakeshin II (the great Chalukyan king) and Harshavardhana of Kanauj in the early seventh century, in which the former prevented the conquest from the north. Since then, we have been witness to a kind of deep mining of Karnataka history to serve two distinct purposes: reel in the votes of specific caste communities and construct a narrative of Hindutva unity.
All about Tipu
In the last few weeks, historical figures have been plucked out of rich and complex contexts to be beaten into swords, flintlocks, arrows, or simply blunt objects with which to bludgeon the electoral opponent. Here, the favourite (and easiest) beating boy has, predictably, been Tipu Sultan (r. 1782-99). The inflationary career of Tipu Sultan’s detractors over the last three decades and Mr. Siddaramaiah’s decision to celebrate Tipu Jayanti has provided the ballast for a campaign which is all too impatient with the historical method. Tipu the Tyrant has won over other equally well document aspects of this modernising 18th century monarch, through the well-worn (though little substantiated or understood) criticism about his attempts at conversion, his ‘destruction’ of temples and his indifference to Kannada. To this arguable list of failings, some prominent news channels have now added the charge of ‘mass rapist’.
Yet it was Tipu the Moderniser who also supported many temples and mathas and left the larger part of his domain undisturbed on matters of religion. Tipu the Indefatigable Fighter who died valiantly on the battlefield, making him, along with Lakshmibai of Jhansi, the ‘figure of the epoch’ in Nandlal Bose’s enduring illustrations of the Indian Constitution. Tipu the Untiring Innovator, particularly of rocket technology, has been admired by leading Indian technologists (Roddam Narasimha and A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, for starters). What has changed between the 1950s and the second decade of the new millennium in popular assessments of Tipu? Has ‘the sense of the past’ triumphed over the indisputable historical document? Does the insistence on making Tipu the Tyrant reflect either the discovery of new archives or new interpretations of the massive archival presence of this monarch? The answer is none of the above. Tipu’s fall from grace has been drawn, ironically, from the oldest and most prejudiced accounts of colonial historians, rather than the sophisticated late 20th century analyses of this 18th century monarch.
Hence the promise to honour the memory of Madakari Nayaka of Chitradurga, who was defeated by Hyder Ali in 1779. In order to do this, one would have to ignore the fact that Madakari Nayaka shrewdly weighed his options between the two powers that had made his independent continuance impossible: the Marathas and the Mysoreans under Hyder Ali. This war between rising regional powers and petty Poligars was not between Hindus and Muslims, but it will be made one. And Onake Obavva who purportedly clobbered the Hyderi soldiers entering the fort with her pestle, and has gained much affection over the years, will be deified.
Inconvenient truths: Not since the 1920s and 1930s in the Hindi/Hindu heartland has there been such a determined search for a Hinduised historical narrative. Historical heroes who had already been annexed by one or another caste group (Sangolli Rayanna and Kanakadasa by the Kurubas, Kempe Gowda and even Kuvempu by the Vokkaligas, Koti and Chennayya by the Billavas) are now being woven into electoral speeches both to connect to the demand for a caste history and also to create a new Hindu narrative. So all the new historical research about what the Vijayanagar kings shared with the Bahmani sultans – administratively, militarily, economically – will be no more than an inconvenient truth.
Such selective memorialising also effaces the pasts of Karnataka: nothing has revealed this as much as the Right’s ‘ownership’ of the Basavanna legacy. Similarly, quoting the poetry of Shishunala Sharif, that saint poet of the 19th century, has also defiled the memory of the rich commingling from which such poetry emerged.
A past to plunder
That is why the real military pioneer, Tipu Sultan, calls for an act of forgetting: though the past is a place to be plundered only for pride and glory, it would disturb the singular narrative of Tipu the Tyrant to admit any complexities. At the same time, it would be too much to expect the newcomers to Karnataka to understand the deep beauty of one of Sharif’s most popular songs set to music by C. Aswath: the hen has swallowed the monkey, the goat consumed the elephant, the wall has eaten up the paint. The Right will no doubt use its unique historical training to detect some scientific miracle or another in this poem, because they have firmly jettisoned nuance or metaphor for a painfully literal reading of poetry and myth.
Truly, we can do no better than turn to Shishunala Sharif, when he said, ‘The roof is leaking due to ignorance, the roof is leaking…’ (Sorithihudu maneya maalige, agnanadinda), and there is no one to repair the beams, he said, in this darkness that surrounds me.
Dispensable specialists: To argue in the face of this sustained onslaught, which a certain regional and even sectarian pride had kept at bay for some time, that ‘history is too important for the likes of politicians’ is a futile cry in the wilderness. There is today an explosion of lay interest in questions of history, and a demand for a past that stokes only pride, making the specialist a dispensable figure. She may even endanger the project of speaking in one historical voice. But, as Walter Benjamin had darkly warned, even the dead will no longer be safe if this mission of programmatic remembering and forgetting is allowed to triumph.
Janaki Nair is Professor, Centre for Historical Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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