What History Really Tells Us About Hindu-Muslim Relations

Supposedly irrefutable evidence of division is said to lie in the Muslims over the last 1,000 years having victimised the Hindus, treating them as enslaved. Romila Thapar explains why historians question this theory.

The following is the text of the C.D. Deshmukh Lecture delivered by Romila Thapar on January 14, 2023, at the India International Centre in New Delhi.

The highly respected historian of modern Europe, Eric Hobsbawm, commenting on the relationship of history to nationalism, given that histories become prolific when a society nurtures nationalism, writes that history is to nationalism what a poppy is to a heroin addict. I would add that the dependence has to be recognised and analysed. 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. 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.

I shall speak this evening initially on the link between history and nationalism, and subsequently about why history has become entangled with legitimising a kind of nationalist history that is questioned by many historians.

Even long-lasting cultures like ours, have been punctuated by points of immense historical change. The punctuations have transformed our societies. These changes are not arbitrary. Nationalism itself is one of these seminal points of change. By definition, nationalism should carry the entire population of citizens in a nationalist movement that makes for a new society, together with its multiple requirements. Nationalism is a concept which, when it comes to be adopted, terminates the old social system and brings in an alternate society with values and structures that virtually revolutionise the existing society. Nationalist principles do not have roots in the ancient past, because the new society they give rise to, is a response to current requirements, and not to those that have long since passed away.

Nationalism assumes that it brings about the uniting of communities on a substantial scale and for the first time. Their loyalty is to a new structure, namely, the nation-state. The single unitary purpose is the construction of the nation, that is of citizens forging a single national identity, as for instance when the Indian national movement struggled to establish a state consisting of free citizens liberated from colonial control.

But nationalism can have variant forms, from a single unitary identity to divergent identities. In India, the divergence was of two new nationalisms identified by religion, the Muslim and the Hindu, growing out of the colonial construction of India. These distinctly different nationalisms have diverse intentions. 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. Their agendas differed and were tied to creating two fresh nation-states.

Also Read: The Colonial Projection of India as Hindu and Muslim Nations Is Succeeding: Romila Thapar

What then was the kind of society that unitary nationalism was intending to build? At Independence, when the polity mutated from kingdoms and the colony of earlier time, into an independent nation-state, unitary nationalism was characterised by the necessary presence of democracy and secularism. Every person was to have equal status and equal rights as a citizen of the nation-state. Inevitably democracy and secularism become essential to the rights of the citizen. These rights had never existed before. Societies of the past rarely gave every person the right to being equal or having a free status. The caste rules of the Dharmashastras, for instance, underlined inequality and the absence of such freedom.

Where a nation-state comes into existence, the people cease to be subjects of a ruler or a kingdom, and become citizens of the state. Democracy is adopted as the model polity. This implies that governing the state is dependent on the wishes of the people who are represented in various state bodies. Power lies not with those that govern but with the agencies that represent the citizens – the judiciary, the legislature the executive. The rules of government are not the arbitrary wishes of the ruler but the actions based on constitutional authority. The rules and intentions of the functioning of the state are recorded in the constitution.

Nationalism when it is singular should unite the people, a unitary nationalism as with the anti-colonial Indian nationalism. Other categories of specific and segregated nationalisms are not intended to unify citizens but to segregate them according to identity. Segregation means that primary status is given to the group that counts as the majority. The agendas of these two are distinct and need to be understood. This is the point at which there is a turn to history. The legitimacy of identities and their history is claimed to date back to ancient times, and the older it is, the greater status it is supposed to have.

A procession in Bangalore during the Quit India movement. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A procession in Bangalore during the Quit India movement. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

It is therefore with the emergence of segregated, diverse nationalisms that there develops a difference, or even in some cases a confrontation between the professional historians basing themselves on methodological correctness in researching history, and those who are not trained historians yet purvey a non-researched history. The intentions differ. The multiform group is more dependent on public support and reformulates history to uphold the requirements of the majority among the citizens. The others, not of that identity may have lesser rights as citizens. History becomes crucial to justify the primacy of the current majority and the form of nationalism.

In previous times the study and writing of history in various forms was left to scholars from whose midst came the professional historians. Slowly there was a shift in history towards the social sciences which demanded a training in reading sources, and in learning systems of analysis and methodology. History is now a specialised discipline in which the proven reliability of evidence is crucial. There is no catechism in historical study. So now there is the history written by the trained professional historian and other views of the past projected by the nationalism of the many segregated groups each vying for the primacy of its particular identity. The latter are questioned or rejected by the professional historians and are in turn said to be incorrect in what they present. Many who make pronouncements on history lack training but who nevertheless pronounce upon the past with full confidence, basing themselves either on hearsay or their own imagination.

History for them is just a story, a story that I narrate, or you narrate, or anybody else for that matter. Making up stories is great fun and very entertaining as we all know from having told bedtime stories to children. But when these stories are claimed as factual then they have to be proved. They cannot be part of entertainment – especially when they become central to the most influential of current storytellers: namely, the media of every kind.

Democracy, which is politically crucial and a significant aspect of nationalism is often used by non-historians as a slogan. But democracy is a recognised concept of modern times as is secularism and both are tied to the nation-state. The historical change brought by nationalism is legitimised by insisting on its components having an ancestry in antiquity.

Let me suggest a couple of examples. The 18th-century 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 free citizens constituted a bare fraction of that of the population of Athens. The overwhelming majority were slaves and aliens who had no representation in, or rights to, governance. Imbuing governance with an ideal of democracy was an imaginative way of using the remote past to claim legitimacy for a revolutionary change in 18th-century France. 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.

Indian sources mention the centrality of the gana-sanghas and gana-rajyas, especially with reference to oligarchies and chiefships around the time of the Buddha. Free citizens find little mention nor instituted methods of representation. The heads of Kshatriya families more frequently sat in the assemblies. The Shudras and the dasas despite being the majority, were excluded. The panchayats of medieval times, and the village assemblies such as that of Uttaramerur, had select membership. Caste society based on varna as described in the Dharmashastras was a contradiction of democracy. The concept of the gana-sangha seems more prominent in Buddhist texts than the Brahmanical.

Democracy, necessary to a nation-state, came to India later in modern times together with nationalism and secularism. The ideals of the French Revolution were beginning to be debated by a wider audience. They were picked up in America and tied into American political thought. As every historian knows democracy and representation were discussed with the coming of the nation-state, associated with the emergence of the middle class, with the new technologies and functions of industrialisation and the changes being introduced by capitalism. It entered colonial thinking when these ideas began to be debated in the colonies.

European social theories of the 19th century bestowed an inferior status on the colonised. The theory of race became prominent in part to justify the control of the European over many non-European populations. To legitimise this particular type of control, the argument of successful conquest was insufficient. The innate inferiority of the dark-skinned colonised people had to be firmly established. Hence the importance of what was called ‘race science’.

Any culture that defined its people as fairer skinned than the other was taken as superior. Thus, the Aryan speakers referring to the dasas as dark was read as skin colour and therefore racial inferiority. The application of race to caste classification further clinched the segregation of the lower castes and the Adivasis.

The controversy over the origins of Aryan speakers is both a serious controversy among scholars but also has a component of contestation between most professional historians and those with pretensions to appropriate knowledge. The former locate the Aryan speakers as migrating from Central Asia in slow stages, whereas the Hindutva theory insists on their homeland being within the boundaries of India. Hindutva holds that both the Hindu and Hinduism originated in India, so they have no choice but to argue for indigenous origins. But defining the boundaries of India as with land-marked boundaries anywhere, has to contend with the fact of boundaries changing every century.

The study of the Aryans associated with Vedic texts is a fascinating historical example of the diverse sources and disciplines now required for investigating such topics. In the 19th century knowing Vedic Sanskrit was sufficient. Slowly the additional disciplines came. Archaeology in the 20th century brought fresh questions on the interface of two diverse cultures – the Harappan and the Vedic. That there were interactions was proved through the new discipline of linguistics pointing to possible Dravidian language elements being present in the earliest Indo-Aryan. The nature of this interaction requires further analysis to clarify aspects of cultural history.

In recent years Aryanism has again become a contention between professional historians and others, but the latter with a few exceptions. That the Aryan speakers were indigenous to India has been questioned this time by geneticists whose DNA analyses of post-Harappan samples of the second millennium BC shows strains from Central Asian populations. Historians working on the Vedic period have now to be proficient in handling genetic data as well, whereas the non-historians writing on the topic can let their fantasies run.

The archaeological site of Harappa, of the Indus Valley civilisation. Photo: Sara jilani/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

In the early colonial period, India was said to be lacking in knowing history since there were no ancient histories as there were among the Greeks, Romans and Chinese. The colonial power, for whom history was the key to understanding the colony they ruled, decided therefore to discover and write the history of the colony. The past of the Indian colony thus constructed would enable the colonial power to govern the colony the way they wanted to, and at the same time claim legitimacy from a version that they themselves had constructed.

Colonial historical scholarship had a basic orientation to the Indian past. One was to discover a history similar to the early European. But the later intention was to find a distinctly dissimilar one. William Jones working in Calcutta studied the Vedas and began to see similarities in language and mythology with the Greco-Roman. Some connections could be conceded. This was not so with other discoveries such as those of James Prinsep who deciphered the brahmi script and Alexander Cunningham who pioneered archaeological excavation. Colonial officers working in India were enthusiastic about these activities, as also were the Indian officials for whom the vision created by this material was new. Two most influential persons working in England, both declined to visit India to consult Indian scholars. They wrote from their study of and reflection on, the texts. These two were James Mill and Frederick Max Muller.

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. This periodisation deeply coloured the interpretation of Indian history. It has been discarded now by professional historians, arguing that its single and universally applied explanation of religion as the prime cause of every major historical activity, was untenable. It continues to be used by some who are not historians.

What were the implications of Mill’s history? The Hindu period was reconstructed from Sanskrit texts. The Muslim period was based on the Persian and Turkish chronicles of the Sultanate and Mughal courts. The focus was on victorious invasions, the destruction of temples and the victimisation of Hindus. Most chronicles written as eulogies to rulers would tend to highlight these conquests, especially of rulers newly establishing themselves.

This is the kind of history that professional historians see as an attempt to whittle down every cause to a single one – religious difference – and ignore or minimise other causes. It was a travesty of the way serious history was being written and something of a joke when compared to the careful enquiries that European historians were making into European history.

For example, much of European thinking on Asian history put the study of Asia into a mould labelled Oriental Despotism. Asian societies were projected as static and registering no changes. The cultural pattern was like a pyramid with a highly despotic ruler at the peak controlling all resources through his administration. Those that laboured to produce the wealth, were at the base of the structure and were immersed in poverty. The despot was only concerned with displaying his wealth. The ‘Asiatic Mode of Production’ was derived from this mould as also some ideas of Max Weber and others. These attempts at explanations differed by contrast from the careful investigation of European history. It was not until the later twentieth century that European and Asian scholars investigating Asian data, discovered a different historical reality.

Mill’s two-nation theory made an impact on politics in colonial India. The veracity of the theory was assumed and was not debated in depth as it should have been. It became the source for projecting two religious nationalisms emerging at this time, the theory providing political legitimacy. The segregated, but conflictual nationalisms based on religious identities differed from the unitary anti-colonial nationalism. 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.

From the historical perspective, we may well ask whether the division had evidence to support it. Supposedly irrefutable evidence of division is said to lie in the Muslims over the last 1,000 years having victimised the Hindus, treating them as enslaved. Why do historians question this theory? It is claimed that when the Muslims invaded India and came to power, they victimised and enslaved the Hindus for a 1,000 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, the historical sources researched by professional historians read differently and do not rejuvenate this view of colonial historians.

The dictionary tells us that to victimise is to make a victim of a person or a specific group of people, to cheat, swindle and defraud them, or to deny them any freedom, or to slaughter them in the manner of a sacrificial victim. Politicians of a certain view and others who should know better, are known to endorse the theory. The professional activity of Hindus was reduced to a minimum, they were socially ostracised and above all forcibly converted. They also had to pay a tax as non-Muslims.

Victimisation is not unknown to most pre-modern societies. Those having access to power and wealth, resort to humiliating and harming those without either. Upper-caste Hindus have been familiar with this practice for more than two millennia. The Dalits, lower castes, untouchables were segregated, and it was claimed that their touch was polluting. They were placed in a separate category of those without or outside caste, the avarnas. This was practised among all religions in India, although records link it more to upper-caste Hindus.

It seems that even on conversion to other religions, and specially those that in theory observed the equality of all, this segregation was maintained. As a category, it may well have been the larger in numbers. This is why we have Muslim pasmandas, Sikh mazhabis, Dalit Christians, and such like. Yet these are religions that formally believe in all of mankind being created equal. One difference however is that this practice was not directed primarily to a religion but was linked to caste and the absence of caste status. Many questions arise that are fundamentally important to our society. Are practices of this kind directed less to particular religious communities and more to the large numbers outside varna society? Are these actions defined more by caste than by other identities or do they change with purpose and intent? Significantly, in Sanskrit sources, Muslims are generally not referred to as Muslim but by ethnic labels such as Yavana, Tajik, Turushka, etc.

Since so much of crucial importance has happened as a result of what was projected as religious antagonism, and even victimisation, let’s just look at what were the actual relations between the two religious communities, the Hindu and the Muslim, and in the period of the last thousand years.

Starting at the level of the elites we know that quite a few Hindu royal families remained at the highest social status. They remained at the head of the administration in their erstwhile kingdoms and were given the continuing status and title of raja. The politics of administration required some continuation. Their income – agrarian and commercial – was sufficient for maintaining their aristocratic style of living.

Traders from Arabia and East Africa trading with the west coast of India go back many centuries, even before the birth of Islam. The extensive trade touched points along the Indian Ocean Arc – the coastline that went continuously from East Africa up the coast of Arabia, on to the coast of Gujarat and then south along coastal India to Kerala. There was considerable familiarity among traders on each side.  Arab traders after the spread of Islam, settled in the flourishing towns trading along this coast. Their invading activities were limited to a part of Sind.

Some Arab settlers married locally, which is what settlers often do when they arrive in new places. Cultures intermingled. All along the west coast of India, new societies evolved. Social identities and religious sects were a mix of Islam with existing religions of the area. This resulted in new religious movements, many of which are still prominent – the Khojas, Bohras, Navayaths, Mappilas and such like.

It also led to the employment of Arabs in local administration. The Rashtrakutas in the 9th century AD appointed a Tajik /Arab governor of the region of Sanjan in coastal Deccan. A Rashtrakuta inscription records the grant of land made to a brahmana by a Tajik/Arab officer on behalf of the Rashtrakuta king. The revenue from this went towards donations to local temples as well as to the Parsi 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.

Appointing local persons to high office was a practice that went back centuries, providing closer control over local matters. This may well be a reason for Muslim rulers appointing Rajputs to high office. 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. 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. Rajput clans had differing loyalties among themselves and the imperial power and therefore fought on opposite sides, and regaining ancestral kingdoms was on both agendas.

The intervention of Hindu chiefs in the politics of the Mughal court was substantial. One instance that went on for a long period was that of Mughal relations with Bundelkhand. The Bundella raja, Bir Singh Deo, who was close to Jahangir and held one of the highest Mughal mansabs /rank of revenue assignment, was so embroiled in Mughal court politics that he was linked to the assassination of the chief chronicler and close friend of Akbar, Abul Fazl.

Among the more impressive symbols of political power used by various rulers were immensely large inscribed pillars. The Mauryan emperor Ashoka set up pillars in the heart of his empire, the inscriptions on which explained his governance and some of his policies. It was a way of directly communicating with subjects. Later rulers, wishing to participate in the past glory of the country that they ruled over, would either add their message or reposition the pillar. The latter was to borrow the glory of their predecessors or to assert their own victories, even though they were generally unaware of what the inscription said, or who were the authors. What was the meaning of this re-location of pillars? Was it celebrating the victory of the Sultans, or was it a link to the history of earlier times? The pillars were not destroyed but carried a long distance with great difficulty and relocated with pride of place.

One of the Ashokan pillars carries the stamp of an extensive historical statement. Currently in a central position in the Allahabad fort, re-located there by a Mughal, it has engraved on it, the large body of Ashokan edicts, as well as the famous prashasti/eulogy, of the Gupta ruler Samudragupta. This inscription cuts into the first few lines of the inscription of Ashoka, suggesting that the earlier inscription could no longer be read. A few brief lines of Feroz Shah Tughlaq come next amidst some graffiti. The inscriptions culminate in a beautifully engraved genealogy of the Mughal emperor, Jahangir. The pillar is a remarkable object encapsulating the Indian past, used by three major emperors over three millennia and in three languages and scripts – the object of pride in a continuity of great Indian cultures.

Feroz Shah was disappointed that the texts could no longer be read by learned brahmanas. He had the pillars transported with much effort and organisation to various important locations. One was placed like a surrogate crown firmly on top of his citadel at Kotla in Delhi where it still stands and could once be seen for miles around. Was Feroz Shah anxious to link with the past because his mother was a Bhatti Rajput from Punjab or was he interested in displaying a stunning historical object that brought him attention as well? Among those that visit Kotla, people of every religion, few know about Ashoka or Feroz Shah, but they stay for a while and seek the barkat/blessings, of those now dead but believed to inhabit the place as invisible spirits.

Ashokan pillar in Feroz Shah Kotla. Photo: By Varun Shiv Kapur/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0

Significantly, the Sultans and the Mughals did not uproot these pillars and replace them with their own, nor did they destroy them. They relocated them. Were they also intrigued by the pillars as symbols of authority from pre-Islamic times? Did they possibly draw elements of their own legitimacy from them? Were they attempting to link their history with pre-Sultanate times? And what might have been the comments of the orthodoxy of both religions – Hindu and Muslim – on these activities?

The complexities of politics were not the only links between the Muslim rulers and the ruled. Marriage alliances were intended to strengthen social bonding. These were viewed as a means of easing political relations and winning allies. The Mughal royal family married into Rajput royal families of high status.  Since Muslims as non-caste aliens were treated as mleccha by upper caste Hindus, did Rajput ruling families lose face marrying into a mleccha family even if it was the imperial family? Apparently not. Was it a matter of pride that they were marrying ‘up’ as it were? There was of course no love-jehad in those days. Memoirs and autobiographies do not suggest that these were forced marriages since sociability among them on both sides was applauded. Court paintings of the imperial ateliers and book illustrations show many facets of the culture brought by the Hindu wives – particularly celebrating festivals – which appear to have been assimilated.

Mughal aristocracy socialised with Hindus, yet Hindus of status looked upon this aristocracy as mleccha – they lacked varna/caste identities. An inscription from Palam, dating to the 13th century, issued by a Hindu trader describes Muhammad bin Tughlaq as almost an ideal king, but concludes by calling him, quite simply, a mleccha. No trader would have used this term for a Sultan in any derogatory sense as that would have been the end of the trader. It could only refer to the Sultan having no caste identity, as was often what it meant. Low caste Hindus, as well as those that had no firm caste identity – could qualify as avarnas. Those regarded as untouchable and polluting, were all at one level, also mleccha. The 16th century text, the Sarva-darshana-samgraha, states categorically that the Shramanas – in which category are included Buddhists, Jainas and Charvakas, and also the Turushkas, they are all called nastikas – non-believers in deity and lacking in caste status. The Turushkas/Turkish Muslims, did believe in a deity – Allah, but he was not a Hindu deity.

Depicting an altogether different social group there is a rather unusual document of the early 17th century that provides us with a perspective on the life and thoughts of a merchant and his community of that time. This is the Ardhakathanaka, a lengthy autobiographical poem written in Braj Bhasha Hindi by Banarsidas in the time of Akbar. The author’s grandfather was the diwan/minister to Lodhi Khan, the Nawab of Bengal. It presents a view of Mughal times from the perspective of the Jaina merchant community living in Agra and Banaras, with extensive trading networks in other towns. Jaipur alone had 52 highly active markets. Problems with certain Mughal officers who tried to extort money from the rich merchants are mentioned in passing. These demands are said to have made no difference to the wealth of the merchants which remained undiminished.

The composition has detailed descriptions of religious practices, the places of pilgrimage, the rituals, the deities they worshipped. Surprisingly there is little mention of Islam or of the Bhakti sects of that time. Banarsidas was briefly a practicing Shaiva, but very soon returned to being an ardent Jaina, the religion of his family and in which he was deeply read. A controversial but popular Jaina movement was started in Banaras in his lifetime that he writes about.  There is no mention in these reflections of any victimization.

The other crucial historical sources, relatively less studied are the many inscriptions. Some are official documents, but many refer to broader social life. In the 14th century, the Qutab Minar in Delhi was struck by lightning and required repairs. The masons who repaired it left a scatter of inscriptions all over, embedded at various points in the minar. The language is Hindi, or occasionally faulty Sanskrit, engraved in the Nagari script.

The dates are in the Samvat era and not the Hijri which is significant. The name of the Sultan, who is the patron, is given. The dynastic succession goes interestingly from Tomar and Chauhan Rajputs to the Shakas – the last being migrants from Central Asia who came around the Christian era, but whose name was sometimes applied to the Turks of medieval times. These inscriptions were composed largely by brahmana authors, a few being mentioned by name. Those responsible for doing the repairs, are mentioned. The architect was Chahada the son of Devapala, and the masons were Lashman, Nana, Solha, Lola, Harimani Gaveri and such like. They were all Hindus. The inscriptions conclude with naming the deity they worship, often Ganesh, and more frequently the particular deity of craftsmen, Vishvakarma, by whose grace they say, the job was done. Invoking their deity clarifies that it was not forced labour nor that of converts. Such inscriptions are not unique to the Qutab Minar as they are also found on other buildings including mosques.

Qutb Minar. Credit: lensnmatter/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Qutb Minar. Credit: lensnmatter/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Let me conclude by asking the obvious question. Given all this activity of Hindus at every social level, and across time in the second millennium AD, what does this tell us about inter-community relations?  Shouldn’t the educated Indians of today, not to mention others, all inheritors of this history, see the situation more clearly and know better? As with fake news, fake anything creates immense problems of what to accept and what to discard. 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 the harmonious and the conflictual. Why have certain controversies arisen, how do we analyse the evidence, why is it crucial to separate that which can be proved from that which is fantasy or hearsay? My plea is that the history taught to our children and grandchildren in schools should be based on reliable evidence and should preferably be the history of professional historians.

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By taking up the theme of inter-community relations, I am not arguing that relations between communities identifying themselves by religion, over the 1,000 years, or even earlier, have always been amicable. Earlier too there were problems that we gloss over. The grammarian Patanjali two millennia ago, says that the relations between brahmanas and shramanas was comparable to that between the snake and the mongoose. Or Kalhana who writes in the 11th century that Hindu kings looted the wealth of temples when there was a fiscal crisis in Kashmir. Occasional inscriptions of defeated Hindu kings accuse their mleccha enemies, of killing cows and brahmanas

Do we know this? Do we take the trouble to recognise that the discipline of history, taught to us and what we then read, can help us understand our culture, the people we live with, our attitudes to religion, our rights and obligations as citizens of a nation-state, among many other things? Do we check why there were situations of confrontations sandwiched between harmonious times? And what caused each? How does the impact of peace or of aggression determine the creation of our culture? Every religion proclaims that it knows the truth about life and even the afterlife. Who can speak about the latter? History requires our pushing ourselves more to asking questions and understanding ourselves and the world we live in. The reality often lies behind the cloud of our surround.  

To return to the metaphor of Eric Hobsbawm. 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 reassess the quality of the opium? All knowledge advances by asking questions of it. So my ultimate question is, should we not ask questions of existing knowledge to enable us to know what we are and what we want to be?

Romila Thapar is an eminent historian.