Recent events in India recall the Latin phrase Damnatio Memoriae, which translates to “condemnation of memory.” It was a practice extant in the Roman Empire in which the memory of any person who had been considered worthy of recognition in the past but was now considered a traitor or a tyrant was expunged from history. Any statues, inscriptions, or even places of residence associated with the condemned person were destroyed.
Damnatio memoriae was a political tool employed to generate a new version of history to serve the incumbent government. Since time immemorial, politicians have sought legitimacy for themselves and their political ideals throughout history. Tyrants have often sought to falsify, modify, and weaponize history in order to gain political power. From the Roman Empire to Joseph Stalin, who even used to erase purged officials from the pictures they had taken with him, Damnatio Memoriae has proven a favorite weapon of oppressors.
Alteration of History
In today’s “enlightened” and “liberal” world headed by the United States and its Western European cohorts, the naive might expect that Damnatio Memoriae might be frowned upon. How could the champions of human rights stand by as tyrants and oppressors erase and modify history in order to position themselves to erase whole nations from the areas under their control? But, sadly, the demon of Damnatio Memoriae is very much alive.
Interestingly, though not surprisingly, the leading beacons of Damnatio Memoriae in today’s world are two key allies of the “liberal” West: Israel and India.
Israel has emptied the Palestinians from their land, confined them to ghettos, and massacred them. All these heinous acts were once performed by the Nazis against the Jews (and many others like the Poles and Russians, though not many Hollywood films have been made about the greater tragedies suffered by them) some decades ago. The victims of yesterday are the tyrants of today, and they are replicating the behavior of their tormentors.
Interestingly, Israel justifies all of its tyranny through a form of Damnatio Memoriae. It asserts that the Palestinians are a people without a history and were no more than unlawful occupiers of the sacred Jewish land of Israel (extending from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea, according to some, though it is also claimed by some Zionists that the boundaries of Israel are the Nile and Euphrates rivers).
India: Taking after Goebbels
Unlike Israel, India is relatively new to the practice of tampering with history. However, thanks to Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), it is making rapid progress. Through filmmakers like Vivek Agnihotri, India is trying to emulate Goebbels and create films based on “historical” events for popular consumption. In these films (The Kashmir Files, Panipat, Padmaavat, etc.), a falsified and distorted narrative of history was presented. Keeping the rules of effective propaganda in mind, the filmmakers tried to make these films entertaining, and the “message” to be delivered to the audience was kept very simple. Graphic violence and tales of betrayal were employed as devices to engender hatred against a single entity: Muslims.
The propagandists were aware that including subtleties (such as portraying some Muslims in a positive light) would only serve to dilute the primary message. Consequently, they painted Muslims from various regions and ethnic groups with the same brush, similar to how ancient Hindus referred to all Muslims as “Maleech.”
The goal was equally straightforward: to dehumanize all Muslims in the eyes of India’s Hindu majority.
The Indian Muslim would become a fifth columnist who must be subdued and taught his place, whereas the Pakistani Muslim would pose a “barbarian” threat to the “civilized” Hindu!
Concerning Damnatio Memoriae, recently, the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), which makes the textbooks that are part of the syllabus in most government-run and Central Board of Secondary Education schools in India, has taken some significant steps. Significant changes have been made to the textbooks. Paragraphs concerning the attempts to assassinate Mohandas Gandhi by Hindu extremists, the 2002 Gujarat Riots, and Mughal rule have been erased. Interestingly, Abul Kalam Azad, who had been touted as a “Muslim founding father” of India, has also been erased.
Apparently, the BJP government is bent on launching a crusade against history in order to expunge anything Muslim from the history of India. The murder of history is in full swing, but the liberals of the West are least bothered. Why alienate a key potential ally against China and a lucrative market?
A quote from George Orwell’s 1984 comes to mind: “Every record has been destroyed or falsified; every book has been rewritten; every picture has been repainted; every statue and street building has been renamed; every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”
Modi and the BJP appear determined to transform India into Oceania in 1984, under the leadership of someone like Modi, the Big Brother.
Such a slaughter of history is almost always a sign of impending genocide. If India succeeds in expunging the Muslims from its history, it will cause the Muslims to lose their ability and power to take any sort of collective action. This will make them easy prey to be devoured by Hindutva goons. A few years down the road, history textbooks in India might teach that the Taj Mahal was built by Prithvi Raj Chauhan! Ghettos and concentration camps for Muslims would open up. Indian Muslims would be declared “illegal aliens” and “people without history”.
Even now, we can see how the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019 discriminates against Muslims. This act has been instrumental in turning millions of Indian Muslims into stateless people with no rights whatsoever. After the completion of the murder of history, tyrannical polities like the BJP’s India turn to the murder of people. This was the sequence followed by Hitler’s Nazis as well. After all, Savarkar, Hedgewar, and Golwalkar, the ideological fathers of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and BJP, were fanboys of Hitler and Nazism!
The record of the past illuminates the conscious of a people;
The memory of past achievements makes it self aware,
But if that memory fades and is forgot,
The folk again is lost in nothingness.
(Allama Iqbal, Rumuz-e-Bekhudi)
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of the South Asia Times