Dear TV ‘Historians’, Please Go Read an Actual History Textbook 

The “historians” & “experts” who get top spot on prime time TV, unfortunately need to brush their history lessons.

Updated
Opinion
4 min read
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A disturbing new trend is in evidence on television screens in India – that of self-proclaimed television “historians” and “experts” – ubiquitous across drawing rooms, and influential beyond compare.

The phenomenon has gained rank particularly since the BJP came to power, with the uber-masculine personage of Narendra Modi at the fore. There seem to be more ‘TV historians’ than there are news channels – ever ready to defend indefensible political positions with recourse to “history”.

Who Are These ‘TV Historians’?

The television “historian” juggernaut appears to be rolling on endlessly, as more so-called experts are culled out almost on a daily basis primarily by the ruling party (and others), and placed before millions of eyeballs, anxious for “analysis” of the day’s events.

Who are these “experts” and what are their credentials for appearing on TV – a broadcast medium with a phenomenal outreach among consumers?

Watching a television news debate recently piqued my interest in what has come to form the staple for news consumers – purported views of the television “historians” who have been, rather unusually, opinionating on everything from the “Hindu” origins of the Taj Mahal and the Qutub Minar, to mob lynching being an ancient Indian tradition and hence acceptable in the 21st century.

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I delved somewhat deeply into the educational background of these right-wing “experts” and found – to my dismay – that none of them possessed any education or training in history and historical methods.

On the same TV debate, one of the “experts” continuously referred to Sanjiv Sanyal’s recent works on Indian “history”. With due respect to Sanyal’s work and expertise, I have to say that since history is a methodological discipline, referring solely to popular forms of Indian history may not be the correct way to defend mob violence and uphold the virtues of Indian tradition and culture.

Whose History is it Anyway?

Staying with history as a discipline, historical sources form the backbone of authoritative history writing. Even as oral sources are now seen as acceptable historical sources, qualified historians inevitably take pains to categorise them as such. The problem with popular history writing remains thus – the straightjacketing of historical and political complexities and the promotion of a linear narrative where questions of identity, race, gender, community and ethnicity are glossed over under an overarching story of “glory” and “valour”.

The unceasing trumpeting of popular and often inaccurate forms of history by television “historians” not only harms the retelling of the past as a discipline, but leads to the normalisation of the dissemination of inaccurate information.

A chronic deficiency that the inanities mouthed by these “experts” exposes is the abysmal standard of the right-wing intelligentsia in India. That the Hindu right at this point in time suffers from an intellectual famine, is probably an understatement. The evidence lies in the rise of the phenomenon of television “historians”.

The fact that most of these esteemed “experts” belong to the right-wing, is not lost on anyone. One glance at any TV debate is enough to not only gauge the banality of the debate and its context, but the utterly dismal intellectual standard of those participating in it. Methodology and accuracy are caricatured and made fun of while fiction is bandied about with impunity.

Fact vs Fiction: A Study in Blurred Lines

Take for example the Taj Mahal and the Hindu nationalist vision of it being a Shiva temple called Tejo Mahalaya. Television “historians” have left no stone unturned to perpetuate the falsehood to an unprecedented degree so as to establish some form of doubt, about the accuracy of what they have known since time immemorial, in the minds of the viewers. Aiding and abetting TV “experts” are also vignettes of “history” being circulated on various social media and instant messaging platforms.

Ostensibly aimed at electoral brainwashing and the consolidation of vote banks, the dangerous nature of these fictional “historical” claims on television goes beyond votes and electoral victories.

The fiction being peddled on TV has the ability to not only wrongly inform viewers – many of whom are students of history and politics – but also raise a generation drunk on the spurious wisdom of unqualified and absolutely unreliable “experts” basking in the glory of a subservient and pliant media industry that provides space and entitlement to rank falsehood masquerading as history.

The airtime given to these so-called opinion makers appears to be an utter waste of television space given the counterfeit authorizations of most of the “historians” making a beeline for television studios. That most news channels prefer to air unauthorized and illegitimate admonitions of history by incompetent “historians” rather than invest in the professional pursuit of journalism is a foregone conclusion. What is most troubling is the hard work TV anchors have to put in to either control these purveyors of half-truth and historical fiction or facilitate their ire against any voices of reason, depending on the current ideological preoccupation of the channel.

(Roshni Sengupta, PhD, is a political scientist and commentator. She is currently research fellow with the International Institute for Asian Studies, The Netherlands. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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