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D N Jha: The Historian Who Stood Against the Grain

To him, history was not merely an academic discipline but a means of campaign against the saffronisation of our past and the past was a tool to explain the present.
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The sad news of the demise of historian Dwijendra Narayan Jha (1940-2021) comes at a time when the nation needed him more. Known for his work on debunking the myth of ancient India tracing its  origins to a “Hindu past’, Jha passed away on February 4, 2021, at the age of 81.

A people’s historian, staunch practitioner of scientific and secular history writing, Jha always insisted that stating facts is not just enough, a historian must take a position. Fighting the communal and majoritarian propaganda of the Sangh Parivar had been his life long occupation as a historian. Busting myths and getting drawn into controversy was never new to him, but he always stood his ground. 

To him, history was not merely an academic discipline but a means of campaign against the saffronisation of our past and the past was a tool to explain the present. Early in his career, calling out the past of Indian subcontinent as ‘Golden Age’ a myth, Jha wrote, “The glorification of ancient India by nationalist historians meant the glorification of what appeared to them as Hindu India. In a sense, therefore, their writings seem to have been linked with the revivalist ideas of Vivekananda, Dayanand and others. In the 1930s and 1940s, this linkage became quite clear: nationalist historiography gave an impetus to the ideas of Savarkar, the high priest of Hindu revivalism.”

He was part of a team of historians, who presented a report in front of the people of the country, debunking the claims of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s campaign in favour of the existence of the Ram Mandir underneath the Babri Masjid. These set of historians and archaeologists presented their reports based on evidence of material culture and early texts. They urged that the state must rely on the experts. After the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Jha commented that the “dispute is a battle between Faith and Rationality.” 

His most celebrated and significant work, The Myth of the Holy Cow was published at a time when an aggressive communal agenda was being pushed forward under the aegis of the Atal Bihari Vajpaye-led NDA government and various outfits of the Sangh Parivar. In the introduction of the book, Jha wrote, “The veneration of the cow has been converted into a symbol of communal identity of the Hindus, and obscurantist and fundamentalist forces obdurately refuse to appreciate that the cow was not always all that sacred in the Vedic and subsequent Brahmanical and non-Brahmanical traditions—or that its flesh, along with other varieties of meat was quite often a part of haute cuisine in early India.” Quoting from the Manu Smriti and a range of other dharmashastras, Jha argued that there was never any injunction on beef eating.

The veteran historian faced repeated attacks by the right-wing forces. Arun Shourie, a minister of the Vajpayee government, alleged that he is distorting history by saying that the Buddhist complex of Nalanda University was destroyed by followers of Brahmanical religion. However, such attacks and criticisms could not let him down. 

In his last book Against the Grain: Notes on Identity, Intolerance and History, Jha has discussed issues like ‘Brahmanical Intolerance in Early India’, ‘Cow Conundrum’, and ‘What the Gods Drank!’. Most of the essays of this volume were written at the time of the ascendency of Hindutva. 

Today, when our country is witnessing a greater onslaught on the democratic ethos and secular fabric under current right-wing political dispensation, historians like D N Jha will be missed but his philosophy of history writing will surely triumph.

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