Book Review: The Erosion and Erasure of the Idea of Hindustan

The real strength of Manan Ahmed Asif's 'The Loss of Hindustan, the Invention of India' is his detailed reading and interpretation of Firishta’s 'Tarikh'.

In 1857 in their ishtahars and proclamations, the rebel leaders invariably spoke about Hindustan and of the responsibility and need to free Hindustan from firangi rule. This suggests that even in 1857 – a hundred years after Robert Clive’s landmark victory at Plassey – the idea of Hindustan as a political and geographical entity had not been lost. On the contrary, it not only remained but also retained a certain emotive power which the rebel leaders invoked to rally the people against the firangi. This point is worth underlining in the context of Manan Ahmed Asif’s remarkable book The Loss of Hindustan, the Invention of India which analyses the erosion and the erasure of Hindustan. Hindustan was once an inclusive category referring to all those who lived within it irrespective of religion; today, in the rhetoric of certain ideologues, it is a category of exclusion to separate those who are seen as ‘outsiders’, those who do not belong to Hindustan, a land that ex definitio belongs to the Hindus.

Asif follows two parallel analytical tracks in his book. One is that of erasure and the other is what had prevailed before the obliteration. The erasure, according to him, was the outcome of what he calls the ‘colonial episteme’ – how Europe worked to erase Hindustan in its own practices of history writing. In Asif’s words, “Under the guise of a purported universalism – the field of world history – it stripped `Hindustan’ from geography and supplanted it with another concept, `India’.” What this process entailed was the collection, archiving, organising and excerpting textual and material forms to produce histories of India. This process began in the 16th century with the arrival of many Europeans and European trading bodies in India. They saw `India’ as a geographical entity and this was the first step towards the political forgetting of Hindustan.

Manan Ahmed Asif
The Loss of Hindustan, the Invention of India
Harvard University Press, 2020

But before the arrival of Europeans, which is conveniently seen as the point of departure for the construction of histories of India, there existed the idea of Hindustan as a political and spatial entity. This idea was articulated in works of history written in Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, forms of Prakrit and later Urdu – all written between the 10th and the 19th centuries. This history and modes of history writing was stifled and suppressed under colonial forms of organising historical material and producing history. Hindustan became a palimpsest for India.

In 1768, Alexander Dow, an infantry officer of the English East India Company’s Bengal army, wrote a history of Hindustan which ironically “crystallized”, according to Asif, “the displacement of Hindustan in the discovery of India as a historical and political subject”. It is worth recalling the very long title of Dow’s book: The History of Hindostan; from the Earliest Account of Time, to the Death of Akbar; translated from the Persian of Muhammad Casim Ferishta of Delhi:Together with a Dissertation Concerning the Religion and Philosophy of the Brahmin with an Appendix Containing the History of the Mogul Empire, from Its Decline in ca 1570 Mahummud Shaw to the Present Times. The title itself contained an error: Muhammad Qasim Firishta (born ca 1570) wrote Tarikh-I Firishta (the work that Dow translated) in the first decades of the 17th century at the court of Ibrahim Adil Shah II in the Deccan. This error is significant since it conveyed the distinct impression that Hindustan was synonymous with Mughal rule. It is important to underline the point that Firishta, located in the Deccan, wrote an account of Hindustan. It was Dow who “delineated the history of Hindustan from the history of India”.

Since Firishta’s text is at the heart of Asif’s arguments, it is necessary to establish Firishta’s provenance. His biographical details are fragmentary. He was probably born in or around Ahmadnagar where his father had moved during Nizam Shahi times. Other than the Tarikh, he also wrote a tract on medicine. In the Tarikh, on one occasion he refers to himself as Astarabadi, which would suggest that his forefathers came from Astarabad; but he also refers to himself again once as “Hindu Sha”’. But he was known as Firishta. He began his career in the Nizam Shahi court. However, in 1589 he moved to the court of Ibrahim Adil Shah II in Bijapur. There is no information regarding the time and place of Firishta’s death. Firishta’s life was spent in the Deccan large parts of which in the course of the seventeenth century came to be incorporated into the Mughal Empire. The Deccan, even after its inclusion into the Mughal Empire, had a cultural and economic life of its own. It was the bridgehead to the Indian Ocean and it formed an intellectual landscape where diverse people and divergent cultures converged. Firishta’s text was a product of this rich and complex cultural interaction.

This world that nurtured Firishta and others like him was effaced in the way the British – soldiers, bureaucrats, but not historians – constructed India’s past. This past, according to this construct, was five thousand years old and was a golden period which was disrupted by the invasion of outsiders (Muslims) who threw India into a dark age of tyranny and stagnation. British rule rescued India from this plight – the white prince charming saving the Indian damsel in distress – by putting India on the track of modernity. This model of modernity was derived from the West but was considered by Western scholars to be a universal model. The history of India was thus to march to tunes set by the West. Generations of Indians educated in colleges and universities set up by the British bought into this India and continue to accept this idea as “common” sense/knowledge.

Also read: How Colonial Myths About the Arrival of Muslims in Sindh Still Divide the South Asian Mind

Firishta’s patron, Ibrahim Adil Shah II, gave a mandate to produce the first comprehensive history of Hindustan. The king told the writer: “Since the histories of the kings of Hindustan do not exist in one single volume…you should grab the pen and you gird yourself to write a book with such qualities; a book in plain language without artifice and lies.” Firishta thus proceeded to compile an archive of all the histories that had preceded him; this archive consisted of materials spread across nearly nine centuries – from the ninth to the 17th – covering themes ranging from politics to geography. This material was written mostly in Arabic and Persian but Firishta added to it what he had learnt about peoples and places from texts like the Mahabharata and Shahnama. What Firishta produced on the basis of this archive was not simply a collection of facts but “a novel interpretation of the histories that had come before him. It reflected a long genealogy of historians interested in the practice and ethics of history writing”. Firishta’s Tarikh, built on this archive, conveys to readers an intellectual recognition and understanding of the many places across the geography of Hindustan.

Manan Ahmed Asif. Photo: Columbia University website

Firishta’s Tarikh is not a chronicle of kings. It is about the vast spaces that make up Hindustan: a historical geography at the centre of which is the Deccan. He did not write “for a court that claims ownership of Hindustan” – his is a “universal history” but significantly that history emanates from the Deccan where Firishta was based. This signified that his idea of Hindustan was greater than the Mughal court and the Mughal imperium. His history was constituted by multiple dominions and to each of these he provided “a chronology, an ethics, a set of actors, and multiple stories” and then proceeded to assimilate all these geographies and histories into a unified history of Hindustan. This approach was in sharp contrast to the way in which the British came to look at the same geographical space which they referred to not as Hindustan but as India. For them, India was an object that was to be first conquered and then ruled, administered and exploited to extract land-revenue and raw materials. The geographical space was to be precisely mapped to show the extent of the British dominion. The people who inhabited this dominion were to be enumerated in census records. Through these processes carried out under the alibi of improvement and reform, the variety and the plurality of Hindustan was obliterated and India made a part of the British Empire and the history of India a la James Mill made into a chapter of the British Empire.

In Firishta’s telling there are innumerable descriptions of the people who inhabited Hindustan. In Asif’s words, “he [Firishta] is concerned with constituting them as a coherent populace, in order to highlight the duties and responsibilities of the ruler to the public. The populace of Hindustan was diverse, with many faiths, political allegiances, and social hierarchies. Not one community, nor people, are introduced or described by Firishta in terms of `otherness’, nor does he remark that one faith supersedes another”. In Firishta’s Tarikh, the people of Hindustan are not defined by the exotic and the marvellous but by the ordinary. This mode of history writing had a legacy; its influence was evident in the Persian and Urdu histories that emerged in the 18th and 19th century. But a shift was also noticeable: Firishta’s text was increasingly being treated as a source for history writing rather than as a piece of history writing by itself. This shift facilitated its appropriation by writers like Dow. By the end of the 19th century, with history becoming an academic discipline in the western universities, Firishta’s text and the idea of Hindustan had both become “vestiges of a ruined past”.

Asif’s analysis and conclusions are powerful and poignant. His book also raises certain questions and challenges. Some of these actually are products of the real strength of the book which is his detailed reading and interpretation of Firishta’s Tarikh. But because of this richness and focus, Asif’s book is somewhat tilted towards the “loss” rather than the “invention”, to use two operative terms in the title of his book. Further, the richness of his reading of Firishta’s text raises the challenge of locating and analysing the archive on which Firishta built his book. What were these texts – in Persian, in Arabic, in Sanskrit and in forms of Prakrit – that were written between the tenth and the 17th centuries? We need to know more about these to adequately comprehend the idea of Hindustan and the implications of its loss. One Firishta did not make a Hindustan.

Rudrangshu Mukherjee is chancellor and professor of history at Ashoka University.