How Hindutva Historiography is Rooted in the Colonial View of Indian History

Members of the Sangh Parivar have been perpetuating the colonial view of Indian history.

At the Theosophical Society in Adyar, Chennai. Credit: nagarjun/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

At the Theosophical Society in Adyar, Chennai. Credit: nagarjun/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

During the years of imperialist rule, western scholars, especially the British, created several stereotypes about India. They portrayed Indian society as static and changeless over centuries, the Indian people as otherworldly and unfit to rule, and India as having no history and lacking historical consciousness. During the freedom struggle, Indian historians, inspired by the nationalist fervour, did not question these clichés and instead indulged in the uncritical glorification of ancient India and produced several counter stereotypes. In the post independence period, however, both the colonial and the ultra nationalist views of the Indian past came under rigorous scrutiny by historians like D.D. Kosambi, R.S. Sharma, Romila Thapar and others.

Over the last six decades, the work of mainstream historians has demonstrated that Indian society was not static, otherworldly or without a history. Through research, Indian historians have questioned and rendered irrelevant the communal periodisation by Utilitarian James Mill, who divided Indian history into Hindu, Muslim and British periods. Under their influence, there has been a shift in focus in the historical research on early India. Political history, chronicling the details of kings and queens, has come to occupy a secondary place in research priorities, with the erstwhile uncritical glorification of ancient India giving way to analyses of aspects of the lives of the people. The post-independence period has thus seen the growth of an impressive corpus of literature dealing with social structure, caste, gender and socially marginalised groups, as well as agrarian economy, arts and crafts, trade, urbanisation and technology.

The developments in post-independence Indian historiography owed much to the use of new tools of analysis, as well as the interaction between history and other social sciences. In short, in the decades following partition, mainstream Indian historians have made significant departures from colonial historiography as well as from nationalist-chauvinist historiography. Their works have been trashed by the Hindu right wing as being produced by “Macaulay’s children”. However, while mainstream historians have broken the stereotypes created by the imperialist historians, the premises of the Hindutva brand of ‘history’ are not only derived from colonial Indology but also serve to perpetuate it.

Tracing the trajectory of the Hindutva view

One of the foundational premises of the Hindutva view of the past is derived from Mill’s division of Indian history in his History of British India (1823) on the basis of the religion of the ruling dynasties – a division that sought to drive a wedge between Hindus and Muslims. This periodisation received much support from H.M. Elliot and John Dowson’s eight-volume History of India as Told by Its Own Historians (1867-1877) that put together the faulty and biased translations of Persian chronicles and overstated the dark side of Muslim rule, with the clear intent of inflaming passions between the two communities, which was important for British imperial policy, especially after 1857. Through the works of subsequent writers, especially Vincent Smith, Mill’s chronological scheme became widely accepted and remained firmly entrenched in Indian historical writings throughout the colonial period, continuing to influence historical studies in Indian universities in our own time.

While mainstream historians have tried to either distance themselves or break away from this periodisation, the Hindutva scholars, if there are any, have clung to it. Since this periodisation lends support to the view that the Muslims are the ‘other’ and that they are foreigners because their punyabhumi is not India, it is the basis of the communalisation of Indian politics and the demonisation of Muslims.

The othering of Muslims as foreigners has led the champions of Hindutva to assert that the Hindus are indigenous people and so are their supposed ancestors, the Aryans. Since they are considered the original inhabitants of India, they have to be the progenitors of the oldest civilisation, the Harappan civilisation. Since some of the important centres, such as Mohenjodaro and Harappa, are in Pakistan, the civilisation has to have its roots in India, and has have been named after the river Saraswati. Thus, without going into the merits and demerits of the argument, one can immediately see the link between the communal periodisation, the depiction of Muslims as foreigners and the naming of the Harappan civilisation after the river Saraswati.

Linked with all this is the Hindutva propaganda of Aryan greatness and the so-called Aryan foundation of Indian civilisation. But even this idea, like that of the Muslims as the ‘other’, is rooted in colonial Indology. It was Max Muller who first spoke of the Aryan foundation of Indian culture. This was shared by two theosophists, the American Col. Olcott and the Russian Madame Blavatsky. They, however, differed on the issue of the original home of the Aryans.

Muller postulated the migration of the Aryans from the north-west into India while Olcott and Blavatsky asserted that the Aryans were indigenous to India. In their view the Aryan culture was the cradle of civilisation, and had spread from India to the West and other parts of the world. Like them, Dayanand Saraswati, who founded the Arya Samaj in 1875, also considered the Aryans as indigenous to India, and the Vedas as the repository of all knowledge and wisdom. Incidentally, the Arya Samaj merged with the Theosophical Society, which also was founded in 1875. Although this merger did not last long, the two parties never seem to have differed on the Aryan question.

The Sangh Parivar has adhered to the view of the Theosophists and Dayananda, and in doing so has gone to ridiculous lengths, for instance when MS Golwalkar reconciled his own view of Aryan indigenism with Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s theory of Aryan migration. Tilak had asserted (1903) that the Aryan homeland was in the North Pole and Golwalkar (1947), who did not have the courage to disregard his view, made the laughable assertion that the North Pole was not stationary and that, quite long ago, it was in what is present day Bihar and Orissa. No one else has pursued this matter of “continental drift”.

The idea of the greatness of the Aryans led to an uncritical admiration of the entire “Hindu” period, which was seen as a phase of affluence, social harmony and happiness. Here again we find that some ideas about ancient India are borrowed from Vincent Smith, who, despite his generally anti-India attitude, described the Gupta period as the golden age of Indian history. During the freedom struggle era, Indian historians jumped at this idea, inspiring the nationalists who, living in a state of dystopia as it were, were looking for a utopia in the past.

In the post-independence period serious historians have eschewed the notion of a golden age in the past but Hindutva scholars have continued to hold on to this obsolete and effete idea. For example, RC Majumdar, in the Classical Age (1962) tells us that life was never happier than in the Gupta period. It is this kind of hype over the so-called Hindu period that is at the root of the wild and crazy assertions about the fantastic achievements of ‘Hindu’ India and the portrayal of the ‘Muslim’ period as a dark age by communalist historians.

Thus, the members of the Sangh Parivar have been perpetuating the colonial view of Indian history. But they never tire of describing as “Macaulay’s children” those historians who have jettisoned the clichés created by the imperialist historians. They need to be reminded of their own pedigree. They are the children of Mill, Olcott, and Elliot and Dowson. What a distinguished multiple paternity indeed!

DN Jha is an Indian historian specialising in ancient and medieval India. He was formerly professor and chair at Delhi University’s Department of History.