Erasing history

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Both the demand for removing Jinnah’s portrait from the historic Aligarh Muslim University and the paranoia being built up against personalities like Jinnah through ahistorical constructions are appallingly ridiculous. Such demands reveal contempt for history, liberal values and a xenophobic mind. The violent manner in which this campaign erupted is of concern as well. It is a serious reflection of the downfall of national values and democratic spirit when the majority begin to feel that the existence of the portrait of a historical personality is a far greater threat to the nation than the breakdown of law and order in support of such frivolous demands. Attempts to bring down statues, portraits and memorials or rename streets and institutions are inspired by the impossible ambition of erasing history from public memory. Any part of history, dark or a period of glory is a shared heritage of any country and nation and must be preserved. It was this liberal thought that allowed the many monuments, statues and buildings of India’s imperial past to survive after the country’s independence. The idea is simple. One cannot change the past; therefore, it is futile to erase the symbols of its memory. However, the BJP-RSS has its own ways of wishing off the past by leaving no traces of any record. If re-writing text books is one of the projects to this end, renaming streets and institutions is another. Bringing down statues, memorial, portraits and defacing monuments is yet another. If the Taliban did it to the Bamiyan Buddha statues, the Hindu right wing has done to several statues of Lenin, Ambedkar and Periyar. Now it’s over to Jinnah, whose portrait has been hanging on the walls of AMU hall since much before 1947, coinciding with the independence of the country and its partition. However one recalls Jinnah and his role in Indian history, a villain or a more nuanced personality, he is a shared legacy of an undivided India before partition. Jinnah didn’t fall from the skies into Pakistan. He was born in India and grew up here, practised law and entered into politics against the British regime. Much before the demand for Pakistan took shape, he had a major role to play in the Indian freedom struggle and that cannot be ignored. It is no historic secret that Jinnah tirelessly battled the legal cases of freedom struggle stalwarts like Lokmanya Tilak and Bhagat Singh. He stood by them when everybody else had abandoned them. Many questioning the Jinnah portrait reason that such symbols of Indian leaders do not exist in Pakistan are making both a false and silly argument. If one country is driven by certain set of values, should India, being a far bigger democracy, emulate that example. Besides, this is not even true. There are examples of Gandhi statues and portraits in Pakistan, like anywhere else in the world. In Lahore Shaheed Bhagat Singh Day is celebrated and a chowk is named after him. Till a certain point in time, the two countries have shared history, shared legacies and thus shared heroes, who may be looked at very differently from both sides now. Their imprints on the public life of the country cannot be wiped off by destroying the traces of their symbols. In a country, where the portrait of Veer Savarkar, notorious for having sold out to the British empire in exchange for his freedom from prison, has graduated to the parliament; and where leaders of the ruling party throw their weight behind making of Godse temples and Godse worship; or where the existence of a functional Roop Kanwar temple mocks at the hypocrisy of a modern democratic nation that could not stop a woman from being burnt in the pyre of her husband; the Jinnah portrait should be the least of the worries. What should be a greater worry is the use of violence in demolishing symbols of history and the selective hand-picking of the symbols to be put on such a priority list of destruction, which reflects an anti-minority bias. This is not just an onslaught on statues and symbols. It is an onslaught on the value-system of the country.