New Delhi: “History is to nationalism what poppy is to a heroin addict”. The rather implausible parallel drawn by the British historian Eric Hobsbawm was recently recalled by the pre-eminent early India historian Romila Thapar while delivering a recent lecture on the complex relationship between historical research and majoritarian nationalism.
Titled “Our History, Your History, Whose History?”, her speech delivered at the annual C.D.Deshmukh memorial lecture at the India International Centre brought out the primary contradiction between professional historians who depend on methodological analysis that “demands a training in reading sources” to give an understanding of how our past came to be and popular historians who lack training but more often than create an imagined history to establish majoritarian supremacy.
“Origins generally rise in status when placed in the ancient past. They then have to be legitimised by assessing evidence and accuracy. What comes from the poppy and enters the mind of the heroin addict, conjures up fantasies about a magnificent past – or otherwise – and about which fantasy sustains the present,” she said.
“Those of you who are familiar with the counter-currents of actual history as opposed to imagined history, in the India of today, or indeed have smoked pot, might appreciate the parallel,” she added.
Divergent trends of history writing
While unpacking the divergent trends of history writing, especially at a time when the Bharatiya Janata Party-led dispensation and its supporters have sought to “correct” the “wrongs” of professional historians and establish India’s glorious Hindu past, Thapar talks about the two “nationalisms” that have steered historical understanding and writing across the globe.
“….nationalism can have variant forms, from a single unitary identity to divergent identities. In India, the divergence was of two new nationalism identified by religion, the Muslim and the Hindu, growing out of the colonial construction of India. These distinctly different nationalisms have diverse intentions,” she said.
“The unitary drew in all the citizens and was anti-colonial whereas the multiform segregates specific identities, differentiating them from the other that is singular,” she said, implying that while the unitary nationalisms “united” citizens of a modern state in making across castes, communities, and faith and was necessarily democratic and secular, the identity-driven nationalism sought to create “two fresh nation-states” – one Hindu and the other Muslim.
In making her point, she presented in detail how faith-based nationalism grew out of history writing by early British historians who intended to legitimise their country’s colonial endeavours.
“James Mill wrote the first modern history of India, The History of British India, in 1817. Much of it was his personal perspective of the history as it might have been. Mill maintained that Indian history was that of two nations, the Hindu and the Muslim, quite distinctly separate and constantly in conflict. Indian history was periodised into the earliest Hindu period when Hinduism was powerful, followed by the domination of Islamic rulers. Finally came the British who controlled events in the third period. The periodisation deeply coloured the interpretation of Indian history,” she said.
She added that such colonial history writing to “whittle down every cause to a single one – religious difference – and ignore or minimise other causes” contrasted that of the “careful enquiries” made by European historians in examining their own history. For most of the European historians, Thapar said, India was clubbed within the larger Asian region that according to them functioned as static societies under a despotic ruler and barely any distribution of wealth.
“Mill’s two-nation theory made an impact on politics in colonial India…Secular democratic nationalism focused on the singular movement for Independence, whilst the two religious nationalisms – Muslim and Hindu – divided the nation between them. The Muslim culminated in Pakistan and the Hindu is edging towards a Hindu Rashtra. The colonial projection is succeeding,” Thapar said.
In recent times, the colonial understanding of India’s history continues in the form of India’s Hindu majoritarian politics that insists upon religious segregation as envisioned by the British.
In her paper, Thapar methodically explained how it was left to professional historians of an independent India to debunk the colonial history of India’s past and truly explore and investigate the complexities that shaped India’s past.
Studying history required examining cryptic reliable sources, interpreting them methodologically, learning new and ancient languages and constantly training themselves to study evidence from diverse disciplines. Whereas, in the Right Wing’s thrust to “correct” that history without having to prove its proclamations methodologically with reliable evidence, the simplistic colonial projection of India has only received an added impetus in contemporary times.
Selective reading of history
She pointed out that interpersonal relationships, cultural intermingling, and social transactions between communities and groups continued throughout India’s history. They were both harmonious and conflictual in India, like in any other part of the world. But to place conflicts – or one ruling community “victimising” the other – at the centre of history writing could only lead to a half-baked, even false, understanding of the past.
She went on to give a few examples to emphasise her argument.
“French revolution claimed some links to Greek democracy so as to legitimise the change from monarchy to the nation-state. Yet there was an absence in Athens of the concepts that moved the French…The revolution was seeking legitimacy for its call to Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, by maintaining that they had existed in ancient times. This is a familiar formulation in our times,” she said.
She added that how the Dharma Shashtras of early India excluded the Shudras and avarnas – those who were outside the varnashrama system and included Dalits, Muslim pasmandas, mazhabis, Dalit christians, foreign traders, etc – from any decision-making in arguing that it was critical to acknowledge such factors before creating any illusionary understanding of India’s past. That varna is a contradiction of democracy is a simple understanding that purveyors of the theory that India had been a “democratic” state even in its ancient past ignore. The powerful and the elite – be it the rulers irrespective of faith or even the so-called upper caste groups – “humiliated” many sections of the society but singling out such “victimisation” only in the period of Islamic rulers only serves the purpose of majoritarian politics in current times, certainly not history writing, Thapar said.
Similarly, she said, “It is claimed that when the Muslims invaded India and came to power, they victimised and enslaved the Hindus for a thousand years. The image projected is that of violence and aggression of the one against the other. Now that the Hindus are in power, they should have the right to avenge themselves. However, historical sources researched by professional historians read differently and do not rejuvenate this view of colonial historians.”
She elaborated how Arab traders even before the birth of Islam settled and intermarried on the western coast of India, and even after they espoused Islam, it produced new and mixed cultures and resulted in new religious movements like “the Khojas, Bohras, Navayaths, Mappilas”. The invasions, as it were, were restricted to the Sind region, she said.
She also pointed out that how during the so-called Hindu rule, many Arabs were employed by giving the example of a Rashtrakuta inscription of the ninth century AD that “records the grant of land made to a brahmana by a Tajik/Arab officer on behalf of the Rasshtrakuta king.”
“The revenue from this went towards donations to local temples as well as to the Parso Anjuman, since many Parsi merchants were settled in the area. The majority of officers at this level of administration were members of the local elite and therefore largely Hindu, and these officers continued in the administration of the Sultans,” she said.
She gave another example to argue that the elites, irrespective of faith, had cordial relationships and they didn’t mind their religious differences, while the poor of all faiths lacked equal rights and wealth.
“The Mughal economy was in the trusted hands of the Vazir, Raja Todar Mal, and Raja Man Singh of Amber, a Rajput, commanded the Mughal army at the battle of Haldighati. He defeated another Rajput who was an opponent of the Mughals – Maharana Pratap. Pratap’s army with its large contingent of Afghan mercenaries had as commander Hakim Khan Suri, a descendant of Sher Shah Suri,” she said.
“One could ask whether the battle was strictly speaking essentially a Hindu-Muslim confrontation. Both religious identities had participants on each side in a complex political conflict,” she said.
She said inscribed pillars like the Mauryan pillars were relocated, and not destroyed, through centuries by various rulers – both Hindu and Muslim. These pillars serve as important sources of history. She said that many chronicles by Hindu merchants talk highly of Muslim rulers, even if they address the Sultans as mleccha – someone who doesn’t worship a Hindu deity but not necessarily a derogatory term.
Thapar engaged the Hindu Right in her paper and criticised those who claim to know better than the professional historians whose probing exploration of India’s past truly gave us an understanding how India evolved through the ages, not for a moment by ignoring or glossing over facts that may make us uncomfortable.
“For us historians, studying the past means understanding how the past came to be – through a logical and rational explanation. If we are to understand the roots of our culture we have to comprehend inter-community relations of the past – both harmonious and conflictual,” she said, pleading that “history taught to our children and grandchildren should be based on reliable evidence and should preferably be the history of professional historians”.
She ended by invoking Hobsbawm again. “Should we let the relationship between the poppy and the heroin addict remain as it is? Or should we insist that the heroin addict should question the visions seen by her or him? Or, should we re-assess the quality of the opium? All knowledge advances by asking questions of it. So my ultimate question is that should we not ask questions of existing knowledge to enable us to know what we are and what we want to be?” she asked.