[The full text of the Seventh D. T. Lakdawala Memorial Lecture delivered at FICCI Auditorium, New Delhi on 21 February 2004, organised by the Institute of Social Sciences.]
The Future of The Indian Past
by Romila Thapar
I would like to express my gratitude to the Institute of Social Sciences and its director, Dr George Mathew, for doing me the honour of inviting me to deliver the Seventh D.T. Lakdawala Memorial Lecture. Given the eminence of my predecessors, this is a more than ordinary privilege for me. The person we are remembering today was an economist with a deep concern for social and economic justice in Indian society. For him, as for many others, the protection of the values that accompanied this concern was essential. These values, necessary to the present, were for him equally crucial to the projection of the future. The link between the present and the future was therefore, intrinsic.
In a seemingly contradictory way, looking into the future requires an understanding of the past. Such an understanding can illumine the present and enable one to think more meaningfully about the future. History as a commentary on the past becomes essential to this process. How the past is to be understood is one among the many alternatives for the future that Indian society is facing in present times. I shall be speaking about the choices before us that will determine the future of the Indian past. Such choices are dependent on our understanding of the past, but among other things, are also tied to the shape that we wish to give to the future society. What is sometimes referred to as the controversy over history, and on which I am speaking this evening, is an indicator of this connection.
The tradition of liberal, independent historical writing in India is now under attack from an official interpretation of Indian history. Many historians are currently opposing the attempt to use history in support of an ideology of religious nationalism. The opposition was sparked a couple of years ago by the government condemnation of existing school textbooks in History published by the NCERT. These textbooks were discredited so as to justify their being replaced in 2003 by a history that would endorse the current political ideology. Historians have been troubled not just by the content of the new textbooks but also by the manner in which these changes have been made.
The school curriculum was changed by government fiat, without consulting the educational bodies that had earlier routinely been consulted, such as, the Central Advisory Board of Education. Such a consultation would have prevented the implementation of what many now regard as a sub-standard curriculum for schools, quite apart from the rather drastic re-orientation of history.
Middle School students are to be taught the following subjects: a package entitled "Social Studies" consisting of potted versions of history, economics, civics and geography; Vedic Mathematics; Simple Sanskrit; and Yoga and Consciousness. On the completion of Middle School they will be tested to ascertain whether they go into the academic stream or the vocational stream and the tests will draw on the Intelligence Quotient, Emotional Quotient and Spirituality Quotient - whatever these may be.
An immediate action was the arbitrary deletion of passages from the existing history textbooks. The government claimed that various religious organizations had demanded these deletions.
Their objections were not discussed by any committee or organization of professional historians prior to the passages being deleted. Discussion in school of the deleted passages was also prohibited. These passages included seminal questions, among them the origin and evolution of caste society in India. In a society where caste remains hegemonic, it is ironic not to allow a discussion on how social hierarchies came about. Other deletions referred to the eating of beef in early India, to the difficulty of dating the Mahabharata and the Ramayana because of later additions to the texts, to the mention of a brahmanical reaction contributing to the decline of the Mauryan empire, and so on. The rationale for these deletions remains unclear. It would seem that these were random objections made by anyone who chose to and were used to discredit the books. A year later these textbooks were replaced by hastily put together new ones, some of which were pedagogically incompetent, apart from their slanted history.
One is not arguing against the periodic revising of textbooks but rather, one is insisting upon such revisions observing accepted pedagogic procedures such as were observed in earlier years; and also urging that textbooks should provide updated, refereed, knowledge, and in a manner that encourages students to think critically and independently. In other words, to perform the role expected of textbooks. At the best of times, textbooks raise pedagogical problems as they did even in the last fifty years. But one had hoped that educational policies would keep addressing these problems and improving on the process of educating students. Unfortunately what is happening now is a series of retrograde steps in terms of structure and content.
One possible amendment to this would lie in the availability of a range of professionally vetted textbooks. Together with this, examining boards concerned with school education, in prescribing such books, should be made responsible to regularized procedures of discussion among schoolteachers and historians. There is furthermore, an urgent need for transparency in and information on, what is being taught in schools run by organizations that describe themselves as religious and cultural, be they the Shishu Mandirs of the RSS, the Madrassas, the schools run by Gurdwara Committees or Church mission schools. As for state schools there is an additional fear that a sub-standard curriculum will intensify the current bifurcation in education: where quality education is available in private schools for those that can afford such schooling, and a near worthless education for those that cannot. We have been far too casual about what is taught in school and are reaping the consequences of adopting a system that is politically malleable.
Textbooks are not just learning manuals. They are also the media through which societies transmit the definition as well as the rights and obligations of citizenship, and these in turn help formulate identities. Future citizens have to learn to assess the institutions that constitute their state and society, an assessment linked to encouraging a critical enquiry in the young mind. Far from making it an investment, education is being reduced to a rather meaningless game of scoring marks. When to this is added a doubtful content in what is taught, the system of education begins to annul education.
Not satisfied with changing school textbooks, the government has also claimed the mandate to propose a uniform history syllabus for colleges and universities throughout the country. This has been done through the funding body, the University Grants Commission. There is a hint that non-compliance may affect funding. The proposed syllabus is seriously deficient as it ignores developments in methodology and historiography of the past half-century. Some universities are currently teaching far more advanced history courses.
There is now a greater interference in the autonomy of universities, with attempts to centralize admission procedures, exams, syllabi and funding, not with the intention of raising standards but to exercise maximum governmental control. The state will of course demand the right to intervene in state-funded institutions, but the intervening should not violate the professional autonomy of the institution. Legitimizing obscurantism through introducing Departments of Astrology cannot be a unilateral decision. It has to be seen in the context of whether the same funding could be used more effectively in other areas, as for instance, in developing libraries for students. It is claimed by the University Grants Commission that introducing Departments of Astrology at University level will prove that astrology is Indiaís contribution to world science and that it can solve the problems of the world. That many Indian scientists have described it as a leap backwards did not deter the UGC.
Dismantling the autonomy of universities is being permitted by academics, who either out of apathy, or a wish to conform to government directives, do not protest against the changes. One remembers the words of Miguel de Unamuno, rector of the University of Salamanca in 1936, that at times silence is a lie for it can be interpreted as acquiescence. The latest attempt of the Government has however, met with some resistance. Various university teachersí associations have rejected the UGCís proposed Model Act for Universities of the Twenty-first Century in India. It is seen as an attempt to introduce control by the government and corporate houses and to eliminate democratic procedures, not to mention the responsibilities of the state for funding higher education.
Attempts are also being made to dismantle specialized institutions of technology (IIT) and management (IIM) by changing the fee structure and the syllabus. Since this impinges in a more observable way on the future prospects of the middle-class, a small protest is beginning to be heard. But now that the court has validated the Governmentís objective, the protest may become ineffectual. The objective is that the degree of self-financing of these institutions - which is considerable - is to be drastically reduced so that they become dependent on heavy Government subsidies. There is little logic in this. The funds for these subsidies would be better spent by the Government on financing primary and secondary education and on providing full scholarships for impoverished students to be trained in the IITs and IIMs. Nor is the element of greed altogether absent in these objectives. The wealthy alumni of the IIMs and IITs send funds for the institutions where they were trained as a gesture of appreciation. It has been proposed that such funds should now be channeled through the central Bharat Shiksha Kosh, so that the funds can be used anywhere and not necessarily on the institutions for which they were intended.
At the level of research there has been the virtual banning of two major publications putting together documents taken from the National Archives pertinent to the two decades prior to Indian independence. From 1970 to 1983, documents from the Archives in Britain referring to these events were published under the title of The Transfer of Power. Indian historians decided to publish documents from the National Archives in India on the same period in a multi-volume project. Some volumes had already been published but another two sets of volumes had just reached the press when the present government decided to prohibit their publication, with no reasonable explanation for this action. The government, it would seem, can ban the publication of documents from the National Archives, even when they are not time-barred.
An atmosphere has been created in which any group can object to a book, and threats can lead to the banning or the withdrawal of such books. Organizations claiming the right to arbitrarily decide what is intellectually and culturally permissible now resort to physical attacks on persons and books. The recent incident when the major Sanskrit library, the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute was ravaged by such an organization, has received little condemnation by the self-appointed protectors of Sanskrit and the Vedic tradition. Books are banned because they question the political agendas of certain groups, and the banning becomes a demonstration of power. The other side of this is that these books continue to be published outside India. If the banning of books becomes a habit in India there will be different histories read inside and outside India. The difference will not be because of academic views but because of the dictate of politics and the suppression of free expression.
We may well ask why there should be a fear of independent historical writing. The reasons behind the fear need investigation. Reducing history to the lowest and most doubtful common denominator means that this is not only an attempt to wreck the discipline, but has wider social implications. Since the earlier textbooks are dismissed because they are said to be not only Marxist in their orientation but also anti-national, an understanding of this allegation has to begin by briefly reviewing the history of nationalisms in India.
Nationalisms sometimes require a demarcation between the Self and the Other through constructing narratives that define each. These are not permanent categories but are projected as such. The reformulation of cultural idioms creates a contest over who does the reformulating and with what intention. Defining the Self and the Other is a complex process and inevitably varies in time and in the requirements of the particular nationalism. It is also worth investigating the point at which the Other becomes the Enemy.
Colonial societies, emerging from colonial experience and its policies, have known more than a single nationalism. In India there were two recognizable forms, generally distinct but occasionally over-lapping. One was inclusive nationalism dating from the late nineteenth century. This kneaded together the segments of Indian society and opposed colonial power. For this anti-colonial nationalism, the Other - the one to be contested - was the colonial power. The focus was on the sovereignty of an Indian identity, based on democratic and secular institutions.
Nationalism attempts to knead together the segments of society that were characteristic of earlier times. This gives primacy to particular features. Anti-colonial nationalism also focused on what shape the future society should take after independence. Implicit in this was a liberal, secular, democratic society, although what this entailed in terms of re-orienting society was not worked out in any detail. But there were other kinds of nationalism that made religion the keystone. There was an assertion that there should be a return to ëtraditional cultureí. But this in effect did not and cannot happen. The encounter with Orientalism, produced a new interpretation of Indian history, religion and culture, reflecting in part the perspective of Orientalism and in part a reaction against some of these perspectives. The Indians that dominated intellectual life in the nineteenth century were responding to both a colonial discourse about India and a nationalist construction of what was viewed as a traditional discourse. The colonial discourse gave primacy to history as a component of that reformulation.
In the early twentieth century two new nationalisms acquired visibility. The earlier nationalism was contesting aspects of current imperial views of history, whereas these later forms were more rooted in the colonial discourse. These were groups drawing on a religious identity - either Hindu or Muslim - and for whom the identity of an independent nation-state derived from the religion of the majority community in the proposed state. This kind of nationalism drew substantially on the inheritance of identities moulded by colonial policy and the colonial interpretation of Indian history. Discussions in this context highlighted formulations equating community and religion. These nationalisms projected imagined, uniform, monolithic religious communities and imbued them with a political reality. Both nationalisms took shape almost simultaneously in the early twentieth century and have become virtually mirror images of each other - each maintaining the viability of separate nation-states. For religious nationalists, the Other, the one to be contested, was not the colonial power, to which they pledged loyalty, but the followers of the other religion, as also those who opposed religious nationalism, such as Mahatma Gandhi whom they assassinated. Political parties propagating this nationalism claimed to speak for communities as defined by religious labels - either Hindu or Muslim. The focus on the Indian citizen faded in their vision.
Muslim religious nationalism aspired to and eventually succeeded in establishing a Muslim majority state, Pakistan. India was not intended as a state to be ruled by a Hindu majority but influential Hindu opinion now seems to be seeing it as the Hindu counterpart to Pakistan. Such a change would meet the ultimate intentions of colonial policy aimed at creating two nations identified by majority religions. The two-nation theory was essential to both Hindu and Muslim nationalisms and in the early twentieth century was spawned by each.
Prior to the recent past, Indian historians were in dialogue with colonialism and mainstream nationalism. It has been said that post-colonialism is not only a dismantling of colonial institutions but an ongoing dialogue with the colonial past. History becomes an avenue for such a dialogue. Mainstream nationalism was critical of some negative colonial theories about the Indian past, but it did not replace these with alternate theories to explain the past. Thus the colonial argument that the pre-modern Indian polity was based on "Oriental Despotism" was rejected, but the rejection was not replaced by alternate equivalent theories of how the pre-modern Indian polity may have functioned. These explanations came from a later generation of historians in the last half-century. Mainstream nationalism was distanced from the religious variety, although there was some overlapping, as for instance, in the delineation of the ancient ëgolden ageí being viewed as the renaissance of Hinduism.
These trends have been recognized as common to nationalisms confronting colonization in other parts of the world, as for example, the role of Negritude in African nationalism. Nevertheless mainstream nationalism was different from the religious nationalisms, more frequently referred to as Hindu and Muslim communalism, which justified the exclusion of the Other by resort to history. History textbooks in Pakistan assert the superior claim of a Muslim presence over the Hindu Other, and the new textbooks in India project the reverse but the nature of the projection is similar.
The insistence of this new identity undermines the values that were sought in India after independence. Democracy is now threatened by religious majoritarianism, claiming that the basic definition of Indian society derives from religious communities, therefore, the wishes of the religious community that forms the majority, should prevail. This is a denial of the equal status of other religious groups. The secularizing of Indian society as a necessary part of modernization is described as alien to Indian civilization and therefore to be discarded. If secularism is alien so too are its essentials, namely, the ensuring of human rights and the equality of all citizens.
A pertinent question would be to ask what makes a religious identity, seem necessary to the politics of the present. A possible reason is that a new middle class has replaced the old middle-class that had emerged from the colonial experience. Its expanded social base brings in middle-castes and others that had a lesser status earlier and are now moving towards center-stage. New elites require legitimating and this takes the form of a new identity validated by a new interpretation of history.
Globalization as a dominant mode of capitalism has created community interests in India that are a departure from earlier ones. A small but strikingly wealthy fraction within this middle-class is now the role model. The aspirations and frustrations among those still at the margins, intensifies into competition, insecurity, and aggression. When unemployment is aggravated, it is diverted into an attack on what is perceived as the enemy within, namely the minorities. This condition is common to the countries of South Asia. The culture of the economy that controls the Market imposes its imprint, sometimes to the discomfort of subordinated economies. Current nationalisms - ethnic, religious, linguistic - cannot be entirely isolated from globalization.
Anti-colonial nationalism had a strong economic component and a vision of converting the colony into an independent nation-state with a well-delineated economic structure. Attention to the prevalence of poverty, disease, ignorance and inequality were concerns at the forefront of the movement and in the immediate post-independence decades. They were values for their own sake and allowed us to live lives of greater freedom. These have now faded. With globalization trying to control the economies of developing countries, nationalist ideologies in these countries focus on other identities. It is not pure coincidence that Hindu nationalism has become increasingly visible and assertive over the last decade with globalization making inroads into the Indian economy.
Religious nationalism gives the illusion of a developing country asserting its independence against globalization. But in fact it builds up a dominant group that controls the new economy whilst speaking in the voice of religion and that can ride safely on globalization. The success of nationalism with a single identity is then used to validate the curtailing of the freedom of expression, through arguing that other identities and opinions are subversive. This is demonstrated by banning books and by assaults on films, art galleries and libraries, claiming that these methods are justified as a mechanism of keeping the culture pure and uncontaminated. Where humans are declared as subversive, curbing this supposed subversion often takes the form of organizing riots or terrorism.
Not unconnected with aspects of globalization is the increasing frequency of terrorism which has intensified prejudices, especially where identities of terrorist groups and of particular religions, are seen as coinciding. The patriot and the nationalist are redefined in keeping with the ideology of those in power, as we saw in Gujarat. The slogan of the war against terrorism has focused on Islam and the West as counterweights drawing also on the theory of the clash of civilizations. This conveniently overlaps with ideologies that see their own backyards threatened by Islamic militants, as in India. Few in India pause to count the number of militant groups, that are terrorizing areas of the sub-continent and are not concerned with matters of Islam, such as the PW, the Naxalites, the BODO, the ULFA, a variety of groups in the north-east some of whom go back fifty years, and various mafias acting like private militias. Yet the image of the terrorist is predominantly that of the Islamic militant. And fewer still give thought to why terrorist groups emerge or question the validity of the argument that religion is the most important defining feature of terrorism and militancy.
State terrorism of considerable magnitude has also become a feature of our times. There is a thin line between agencies of law and order providing protection to citizens, and the same agencies being diverted by the state to participate in what would otherwise be called acquiescing in terrorist activities. Such seeming ambiguities threaten human rights but are sought to be justified by resort to nationalism, and in turn to history, and both bring in the support of sections of the middle-class.
Combined with this, the fears of the middle-class are increased by movements surfacing from within the society but from below, in the form of Dalits and Backward Castes asserting rights. The middle-class that remains unsuccessful feels trapped. There are perhaps echoes of the anti-Brahmin movement of a century ago. The lowering of the standards of education places the Backward Castes and the Dalits at a further disadvantage. The introduction of a non-pedagogically approved curriculum could well be a move to exclude such groups from the better jobs. The solution in relation to high quality specialized training is not to dilute education but to increase the number of scholarships and provide for better training in schools.
Politicizing religion creates an over-arching identity. This seems to marginalize social inequalities, but nevertheless, the inequalities remain. The empowerment of the weak has no place in this ideology. The constant projection of the Muslim and the Christian as the Other diverts attention from the inequities of society.
In creating a religious nationalism many aspects of a religion have to undergo the kind of restructuring that allows a religion to lend itself to a political ideology, generally of a fundamentalist kind. Since religions have an extensive social function, apart from the belief and practice that they endorse, they have had multiple social roles, some tolerant and some intolerant. But such variant histories are seldom referred to when the claim is made that every religion is inherently tolerant. The introduction therefore, of social and political configurations, as for instance, a modern fundamentalist form, is always possible but requires some reformulation of the religion.
A new faction of Hinduism labeled Hindutva or "Hinduness," is a reformulation. To quote a founding statement, the aim is "to Hinduize all politics and to militarize all of Hindudom". In order to be effective, this change requires political support. Hindutva has taken on many meanings, varying according to occasion. It is also equated with Hindu Rashtra or else with what is called "cultural nationalism". This involves choosing and defining a single culture - in this case that of upper caste Hinduism. But equally important is the question of who defines it, how is the choice made, what is its agenda, and what happens to the marginalized or discarded cultures. This is of central importance not only to non-Hindus but also to the Backward Castes, Dalits and adivasis. Setting itself up as the sentinel of Hinduism, Hindutva is not sympathetic to views on Hinduism other than its own rather trivial assertions about the religion, bereft of the creativity of intellectual and aesthetic exploration. That which has often given Hinduism its sensitivity to the acceptance of unbounded belief systems, is reduced to a lifeless ordering of religiosity. When this reductionism is challenged, a claim is made that religious and cultural sentiments have been hurt, and violence is resorted to in the guise of defending religion and tradition.
Interestingly, this reformulation of Hinduism, also borrows from certain aspects of Islam and Christianity, aspects that were previously not regarded as essential to Hinduism, such as, emphasizing historicity - preferably of a founder, locating a sacred topography, adopting a sacred book, and simulating an ecclesiastical authority. I have elsewhere referred to this as Syndicated Hinduism.
Hindutva promises empowerment through its organizations at various levels and encourages political mobilization directed towards the creation of a state dominated by a religious majority. The cadres of the RSS are trained in military fashion, attend schools, youth clubs and institutions associated with this ideology, and work in unison with the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Bajrang Dal and the political party currently in power - the BJP, Bharatiya Janata Party.
To be effective as a political ideology Hindutva has to redefine Hindu identity. Such a redefinition is rooted in ideas of origins. This focuses on history as was recognized by one of the founding ideologues of Hindutva. VD Savarkar, writing in the 1920s, stated that an Indian could be only that person who could claim that the land of his fathers, pitribhumi, and the land of his religion, punyabhumi, both lie within the territorial boundaries of British India. Furthermore, there had to be a commitment to a common Indian culture, inevitably defined by Hindutva. These qualifications automatically led to Muslims and Christians, being regarded as foreigners. Subsequently, Communists were added to this list ! Issues of race and language that dominated contemporary European fascist movements were introduced as further qualifiers. And, as we know, in periods of confusing change, the preference is for a theory that simplifies the social world into ëusí and ëthemí.
The rewriting of history is intended to bring about a new bonding by privileging the identity and origins of the majority community, and by the same token, indicating that religious minorities are foreign. I would like to refer to two examples of how attempts are being made to establish this.
The ancestry of the Hindus is to be linked to a lineal descent from the Aryans. ëAryaní was initially a language label but it is often used indiscriminately to refer to race, peoples and ethnic groups. Aryan culture is now projected as the oldest and is assessed as superior to all others. This argument draws on nineteenth century ideas on the superiority of Aryan culture and its genesis from a single, unadulterated source - the Vedic corpus. The date given by most scholars for the earliest section of the Vedic corpus, the Rigveda
, is around 1500 BC. But in order to maintain that it is the oldest culture, the authorship of the earliest urban civilization in India that of the Indus, generally regarded as pre-Aryan and dating to the third millennium BC, is also being declared as Aryan. The attempt therefore is to take back the date of the Rigveda, to 3000 BC or even earlier, and to read it into the archaeology of the Indus civilization. Attempts are being made to change the label for the Indus civilization to ëSarasvati Civilizationí thus evoking the Rigveda and Hindu connections. It is further held that the Aryans were indigenous to India. This strengthens their role as the founders of Indian civilization and ancestors of the Hindus. Aryanism and Vedic culture are projected as the foundational culture of Indians.
Historians who contest this formulation are described as anti-Indian, anti-national, and of course, "Commies". Yet historians have argued that such a chronology is difficult to reconcile with the archaeological and linguistic evidence. It is at least fifteen hundred years too early and there is little in common between the sophisticated urbanism of the Indus civilization and the agro-pastoralism of Rigvedic society. The two cannot be equated. At most it can be considered that some elements of the former may have found their way into the latter but such statements would have to be supported with firm evidence. That there was a graduated migration of Aryan speakers from across the Indo-Iranian borderlands and an inter-weaving of cultures remains a viable argument.
The Aryan theory when it was first promulgated in the late nineteenth century, was taken up in India by a range of people of different social backgrounds, each group seeing in it those perceptions of the past that were suitable to its own concerns. Thus, Jyotiba Phule writing in Marathi and in support of the lower castes and Dalits had an entirely different take on the theory. He maintained that there was an invasion of alien, Aryan Brahmans, as a result of which the indigenous inhabitants were subjugated, oppressed and relegated to lower caste status. The conflict therefore was over the establishment of caste identities and not religious identities and there was an inversion of the present idea of who was indigenous or alien. Aryanism supports the notion of upper caste Hindus being racially and culturally superior to lower castes, Dalits and adivasis, and concedes the legitimacy of the dominance of the upper castes.
Theories of Aryan arrival from across the borderlands or alternatively those proposing indigenous origin have been debated for over a century. If Aurobindo supported indigenous origin, Tilak argued for the long march from Arctic lands. The central question today is not whether ëthe Aryansí were indigenous or foreign. Historians have moved on from this to analyses seeking insights into the interface of the many cultures and societies, old and new, of this period and of their evolution. The complexity of cultures is being analyzed as also of the various societies that went into the making of the dominant cultures, such as those featured in Vedic compositions. The Vedic corpus makes a distinction between the arya and the dasa and various other communities, a distinction that is also reflected in the non-Aryan linguistic elements in Vedic Sanskrit. The interface between diverse societies and cultures means that not all of them conformed to the current, popular definition of "Aryan." The existence of diversities involves analyzing the varying processes from which these societies evolved, such as how languages mutate and spread, populations move, myths and rituals encapsulate changing ideas, economies evolve, social hierarchies are established, dominant groups emerge and state-systems become visible. Historical processes have also to be differentiated. Thus, invasions or migrations are not identical processes and they differ in origin, intention and impact. Ascertaining these variations is crucial to understanding cultural evolution and change through interaction among and between societies, both in this period and in later times. A more meaningful debate would be to examine the validity of the received version of what is meant by ëthe Aryaní.
The concept of civilization as a stage of socio-economic change remains an acceptable idea. But the nineteenth century definition of the term as a territory within the boundaries of which there was a single religion and language of significance is open to question. Now we know that each civilization is not only diverse within itself, but that its characteristics often emerge from an intersection with cultures beyond its geographical boundaries. The northern areas of the sub-continent have repeatedly been host to large numbers of settlers from central and western Asia throughout the centuries. Migrants coming by sea were common to the coastal areas of the peninsula. The debate therefore about defining who is indigenous and who is foreign, spanning five millennia, is a spurious debate.
Insisting on a single source for Indian civilization, such as the Vedic corpus, excludes the many facets of thought and structures that went into its making and into subsequent philosophies. The rich tradition of perceptions, rationality, logic and dialectics, also get excluded since these often draw on the intellectual controversies of various times. Some of the most thought-provoking insights into early Indian social ethics come from comments not only in Buddhist and Jaina texts, but also from other sources, and these were often initiated by questioning the dominant culture. Even dominant cultures themselves evolve from such questioning. The marginalization or negation of controversy obstructs the understanding of cultures.
Controversies were recorded not only in pre-Islamic India but also after the arrival of Islamic schools of thought. These included the ideas within a tradition, and also those that emerged when the formal boundaries of Hinduism and Islam were transgressed at various levels, as in some Bhakti, Shakta, Natha and Sufi thought of the second millennium AD. Such crossings of boundaries have been seminal to many contemporary Hindu and Islamic beliefs and practices. At the other end of the spectrum there was dialogue between and among scholars of Sanskrit, Persian and the regional languages. The fading of formal religious boundaries was particularly evident in the non-elite sections of society - in effect the majority of people.
The second focus in the rewriting of history relates to the role of Muslims or of Islam in Indian history, where the past is again used to justify an ideology of the present. It is argued that the arrival of Islam, resulted in two distinct and separate nations in the Indian sub-continent whereas earlier there had been only one, the Hindu ; further, that the coming of the Muslims was a disaster because they oppressed the Hindus and caused the decline of Hinduism.
The history of the second millennium AD is therefore viewed as the history of two communities - Hindu and Muslim, each represented as uniform, monolithic, mono-cultural, right across the sub-continent, and each hostile to the other. Yet actually each was constituted of multiple communities of varying identities and diverse relationships. Some relationships led to conflicts, others were friendly, depending on the requirements of each. Groups identified themselves by caste, occupation, language, region and religious sect. Even labels such as ëHinduí or ëMuslimí were not widely adopted until some centuries later. Among the many forms in which Islam arrived in the sub-continent - through pastoralists, traders, armies, migrants and religious sects - and even where conquest was the mechanism of control, relationships required social negotiations. But the study of such negotiations and the articulation of ensuing relationships have no place in the new history. It excludes the presence of plural relationships and multi-cultural societies. This would require conceding that such groups not only contributed to the making of Indian identities in the past, but equally important, that identities change over time.
Conversion is frequently referred to in this history. Even where it is said that some percentage of Muslims and Christians were converts from Hinduism, conversion is viewed only as the change from the formal manifestation of Hinduism to the formal definition of the other religions. There is little recognition that conversion is not a complete break from the previous way of life. The vast majority of Christians and Muslims who were converted from Hinduism tended to carry their customary law and their cultural ways with them, introducing innovations in the practice of the religion to which they converted. This is recognized as part of the process of the conversion of large groups in the history of any religion. In India conversions were frequently by jati / caste or by a segment of the caste, and therefore caste practices were not easily shed. These relationships need to be explored so as to understand the link between religion and social forms. Nor did conversion by itself change the social status of a caste. The inequality of caste, although denied in the theory of Islam and Christianity, was effectively incorporated into Muslim and Christian society, with predictable variations.
Regional cultural norms tended to segregate groups even if they belonged formally to the same religion, whether Hinduism or Islam or any other. There were differences in social practices relating to caste, language, custom and sect. There were differences in food taboos, rules of kinship and marriage, access to property, language, between, for instance, the Meos of Rajasthan, the Khojas of Gujarat, the Navayats of the Konkan and the Mapillas of Kerala, all officially Muslim. Such differences often made them more akin to local non-Muslim communities than to each other. In recent times however, with attempts to homogenize such groups through Islamization or through the threat of the erosion of their culture, the differences are being erased. Among Hindus too such differences kept segments segregated. The intersections among these groups and their study are an ongoing process in the history of regional cultures, and the latter are obviously ancestral to the Indian present, and more immediate than the ëgolden agesí of the remote past.
The new history presents the arrival of Islam as that of the Muslims conquering the Hindus and the Hindus resisting them. Reference had earlier been made to Muslim epics of conquest in Persian and Hindu counter-epics of resistance in Hindi, creating two antagonistic communities in conflict. This view is now shared by the official histories of India and Pakistan. It is of course to be expected, that conquest will be met with resistance in all periods of history, but the purpose of both have to be viewed in greater depth. Resistance was more frequently over territory, political power and status, although references to religious differences were not excluded. Alliances and enmities were known to cross religious loyalties and pragmatic concerns in such cases had priority.
This becomes evident from what are cited as ëHinduí epics, as for example, the court literature of various Chauhan Rajputs facing Mohammad Ghuri and Allah-al-din Khalji. Far from being concerned only with Hindu resistance to the Muslim, their narratives focus on court intrigue, and campaigns against neighbours who were almost hereditary enemies, issues of competitive status, political legitimacy and marriage alliances. Religious difference is not absent but is only one among many other factors. One such epic has a long peroration on a Khalji princess wishing to marry the Rajput prince of Jalor. She recalls their many previous births when they were husband and wife. He rejects her, arguing that such a marriage would be unacceptable to a Rajput, but it is unclear whether this was because of the difference in caste or in religion? In another such epic, when Ranthambor, the capital of the Rajput raja Hammira was besieged by the Khalji Sultan, the raja was deserted by most of his Rajput ministers and courtiers, but his Muslim advisor, Mahimashahi, remained loyal to him till the last.
It is claimed that the new history now being imposed has been constructed from an entirely indigenous, Indian point-of-view. It is therefore hailed as a departure from the earlier writing of Indian history, condemned as Eurocentric and written from a western perspective, even by Indian historians. But actually this history has no new theories of historical explanation, Indian or other. Such explanation would be expected normally from a historiography claiming to change the paradigm. This history merely repeats the theories of nineteenth century colonial history, some of which had been rejected even a century ago by nationalist historians. This is not a dialogue with the colonial past, but merely a fresh dressing up of the colonial view.
The two central themes namely, the Aryan foundations of Indian civilization and the nature of Muslim rule in India are taken from European and colonial writing. It is well known that Friedrich Schlegel in 1808 maintained that Sanskrit was the ancestral Indo-European language, isolated and unique, a view now regarded as out-dated. He deduced from this that those who spoke it were imbued with the deepest wisdom. The genesis of language, whether from a single source or from many, dominated the nineteenth century debates among European Orientalists and in the German Romantic movement in particular. The sub-texts of these debates were often related to European self-perceptions especially in the heyday of imperialism. Language was assumed by some to be the collective creation of a national culture, and when race - and the Aryan race in particular - was added to this as another determining feature of culture, the combination as in Germany, was to be volatile.
It was also the century when ëthe Aryaní as an entity came to be defined and established in Europe. The invention of the Aryan race and the superior Aryan culture was the outcome of what in Europe was called, ërace-scienceí. It had an impact on current social theories in Europe and on socio-religious reform movements in India. The prominence of Sanskrit and of the Vedic corpus in the elite cultures of India, draws on a continuing brahmanical tradition that gives it priority, although others such as the heterodox sects and those articulating regional cultures and languages, had contested this even in earlier times. However, the Vedic corpus as initiating Indian history is the contribution of nineteenth century Orientalism. Max Mueller popularized the term ëAryaní in the Indian context linking it closely to the Vedic corpus. He argued that this was the most creative period of the Indian past. But he also maintained that the Aryans came from outside India and had links with the speakers of Indo-European. So half his thesis has been accepted and the other half turned outside in !
The currency of these ideas also influenced nineteenth century Indian thinkers such as Swami Dayanand, Shri Aurobindo and Swami Vivekananda. Their intellectual context was both the debate with European Orientalism on the Hindu religion and on Hindu culture and tradition, as well as the attempt to revive earlier debates in Indian thought. Their construction of Hindu civilization therefore, needs to be seen both in terms of their intention of evoking a pristine, original civilization, and at the same time having to react to Orientalist views. The nature of the colonial impact was such that in the nineteenth century the reconstruction of an indigenous culture was inevitably also responding to this impact.
In 1875, the colourful Mde. Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society, with Col. Olcott, among others. Olcott was closely connected with the short-lived merger of the Theosophical Society and the Arya Samaj. He and many Theosophists maintained that the Aryans were indigenous to India and that they civilized the rest of the world. A much-discussed question at that time was whether the British and the Indians could be related by blood, since they both belonged to the Aryan race ! Religion was clearly less important as a marker of identity than race in these discussions. Needless to say, contrary views such as those of Jyotiba Phule, which made caste the primary identity, were ignored.
The second theme, of the antagonism between the Hindu and the Muslim in Indian history, is closely linked to colonial interpretations of Indian history. That all Muslims were foreigners was stated in late eighteenth century Orientalist writings. In the nineteenth century, James Millís History of British India, expounding this theory, became a hegemonic text. Mill divided Indian history into three periods: Hindu civilization, Muslim civilization and the British period. The use of the label ëcivilizationí for Hindu and Muslim with its focus on religion and language demarcating civilizations intensified the divisions. We have lived with this periodisation for almost two hundred years. Although historians in the last fifty years have questioned its viability, it is now again being reinforced.
Mill argued that Hindu civilization was stagnant and backward, and Muslim only marginally better. Governance prior to the coming of the British was that of Oriental despots. British rule was an agency of progress because it could legislate change for the improvement of India. Millís projection was that the Hindus and Muslims formed two uniform monolithic communities, permanently hostile because of religious differences, with the Hindus battling against Muslim tyranny and oppression. This view was an assumption in much of colonial writing on India.
H.M. Elliot and John Dowson in their multi-volume, History of India as Told by Her Own Historians, state that Muslim rule had to be depicted as oppressive and tyrannical in order to convince Hindus that they were better off under British rule. The dichotomy was cut deeper by the colonial emphasis on legal systems defined by religious codes, and community numbers measured through the census. The subsequent introduction of separate electorates validated the divide. The colonial view held that the Muslims of India were largely foreign, because of their supposed descent from immigrants. That the majority of those constituting various Muslim communities were converted from Hinduism was conveniently ignored. The dichotomy created by colonial perceptions was useful to both Hindu and Muslim religious nationalisms.
One may well ask why are the proponents of this new history repeating the colonial history of the nineteenth century and claiming it not only as new but indigenous? It should be recognized that since the political ideology derives from a colonial source, it is not surprising that the historical interpretation it wishes to project, does the same. If a claim is made to shifting the paradigm in history, then a way of explaining the past has to be constructed that is significantly different from previous attempts. It must provide new perspectives of the nature of the data and its comprehension. It must be accompanied by a viable theory of explanation relating to the new paradigm. But the supposed new history neither addresses the questions and the concepts that other historians are addressing, nor does it raise fresh ones.
Obviously history has to be rewritten from time to time since it is not a frozen body of information. Like all knowledge it has to be continually updated through advances in data and methods of analyses. This process is part of a critical enquiry, on which the historical method is founded. The assumption that such a method is not required in the reinterpretation of history is a premise that is disputed by those opposing the supposed new history.
In the last half-a-century, historians of India have moved away from the rather limited debates of colonial and nationalist interpretations, towards more precise methods of enquiry and a more critical use of sources and interpretations. Most of the changes are obvious and are observed by historians working on any aspect of history in any part of the world. Nevertheless they need to be re-iterated where they are not being observed in claims made to historical writing. An awareness of updated information and readings is essential.
In speaking of a historical method a number of features of historical research are essential. Historical evidence consists of artifacts and texts in the main. The oral tradition is included but has its own methods of testing for reliability or assessing its intentions. Artifacts include visible remains such as architecture and icons from past periods as well as those that have to be excavated. Artifacts and texts have to be interpreted by historians and this raises the question of the basis on which interpretations are made. These are determined by the readings which when they depart from earlier accepted ones have to be justified. This was known to earlier historical research but now there are many more techniques of analyses that can bring variant readings. The many debates on the date of the Arthashastra are a case in point. Earlier views drew on arguments based on internal evidence and corroboration from other sources. More recently the text was subjected to a computer analyses based on linguistic forms. Concordances of the symbols on the seals from the settlements of the Indus civilization were also facilitated by the use of a computer. Similar techniques and analyses have been made of titles and designations from Chola and Vijayanagara inscriptions and these studies have enhanced our understanding of the structure of administration in south India.
Interpreting a period of history means viewing it from the perspective of various social groups: the many voices of a history. Historical evidence is no longer limited to the narrative of the victorious alone. Narratives also draw from and speak to the Other, and historians now seek the voice of the Other. But fantasy has to be differentiated from demonstrated evidence.
Sources therefore are questioned before their versions are accepted. There has been a further fine-tuning of the chronology of texts, using internal criticism or even new technical aids. A random use of sources ranging over five centuries to make a point is no longer acceptable. Where chronology is under discussion, precisely dated sources are given priority over evidence that comes from texts extending over large periods of time, as for example the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. The latter constitute a different aspect of historical investigation.
A significant change of the last few decades has been that of viewing history as a process and not merely a narrative of events. This involves discussing concepts from comparative history and from other disciplines that often leads to a better-defined investigation and encourages more pertinent questions. The emphasis on historical context is a major methodological departure, very different from isolating evidence and treating it as individually self-sufficient as was done earlier. Not only are the contents of texts studied but also their context in terms of the author, the audience, the purpose and the genre. This has enriched our understanding of texts and provides greater precision.
The scope of history has widened enormously to include the study of changing forms of caste, gender studies, diverse economies of various periods, the role of technologies, processes of state-formation, the social context of religious sects, the history of ideas, the impact of environment and ecology on human activity and vice versa - in fact the normal components of what today is regarded as appropriate to historical investigation. The much wider range of causal analyses resulting from the broadening of the scope of history now requires a discussion of priorities in ascertaining causes. Over and above this, the historical context of ideas and historiography - the history of historical ideas - has become a prerequisite for historical research. The historian is not creating a belief about the past, but is attempting to understand the past through a logical analysis of the evidence.
Those who promote the new history, object to much of the history that has been written in recent decades. It is persistently referred to as anti-national and Marxist on the assumption that this in itself will discredit it. The label of Marxist has become a catchall for any kind of history that now is disapproved of by religious nationalism, whether of the Hindu or the Muslim variety, or any other. This is because such histories often incorporate a range of opinions, enrich the understanding of the past by extending causal analyses, question popularly accepted or received notions and encourage an awareness of historical method and critical enquiry as the basis of research.
Historians in the last fifty years have made extensive analyses of the themes initiated by colonial historiography. Millís periodisation and the concept of Oriental Despotism have been set aside. Marxist historians have criticized Karl Marxís Asiatic Mode of Production, as the dominant political economy of pre-modern India; and instead of directly applying familiar theories, there is a greater interest in the range of Marxist methodologies used in historical analyses. The notion of a "Golden Age" has also been questioned, as it has in the current historical writing on virtually all civilizations.
Recent studies have made visible the multiple cultures that are essential to understanding the Indian past and present. The boon to the Indian historian is the continuing presence of what has been called "the living past ", which has sensitized historians to one kind of comparative method. A view of history from the perspective of under-privileged groups that this provides, presents a more complete picture of society than was known in earlier studies. Above all, this kind of history cannot be controlled by a single ideology.
Yet such a control over knowledge is now being attempted. Issues relating to culture, aesthetics and philosophy have also to conform to the formulaic projection of what is referred to as "the Indian tradition". It is argued that Indian civilization has been continuous and without a rupture, and that this is unlike the experience of western civilization that is seen as having broken with Greco-Roman Classicism and Medieval Christianism to arrive at Modern Enlightenment. It is maintained that the Indian reality of the past and the present, can only be understood through Indian theoretical constructs contained in Sanskrit texts. This is said to be the Indian cultural continuity. If taken literally this would in effect be the end of history. It is legitimate to base theories of Indian culture and tradition on textual sources - which is precisely what historians do. But it is intellectually illegitimate to ignore what one might call the double agenda of history: that each text has a historical context and an intention in the act of its composition; and that each subsequent reading of a text or of an event, is also conditioned by the context of the event and of the person writing about it and the audience for whom it is intended. Obviously texts from the past must be read, but they must be read with a comprehension of their time and function, which in turn requires that the reading be analytical. This is recognized in the methods basic to the humanities and the human sciences, where these are part of the larger discourse.
There is yet another aspect that has to be brought into the discussion of the role of religious nationalism in the discipline of history. This involves the attempt by Indians who live outside India to introduce belief into the construction of Indian history. Nationalism focuses on the link between power and culture and seeks to use culture in its access to power. Culture becomes a euphemism for power. The redefinition of Indian culture as essentially Hindu, and preferably of the upper caste, has also become the ideology of a section of the Hindu diaspora. This diaspora, among the richest in many parts of the world, is a wealthy patron of the politics of religious nationalism in the homeland, and like all wealthy patrons intervenes in these politics. Some have called such activities, ëlong-distance nationalismí, and others have maintained that distance is not a safety zone but a field of tension.
Where nationalism moves beyond the boundaries of the nation-state, culture becomes an abstract construction. It grows out of the fantasies about the past of the home country and these also form part of the response to confrontations with the culture of the host country. There is a tendency towards conservatism and a drawing on the earlier debates emerging from colonialism and nationalism. To the degree that the rewriting of history is a political act, history inevitably becomes the ground for contestation. The contest is over the shape and the intention of reformulating history.
The ministers of the Government of India, publicly abuse those of us who as historians are opposed to the current official view of Indian history. But the more sustained, vitriolic attacks come interestingly, from a section of Hindus in the diaspora and more particularly those in the United States. The experience and articulation of the diaspora has now become a subject of study among sociologists and political analysts and various reasons have been suggested to explain the forms of its articulation. It is being suggested that these arise from problems of self-projection. Many persons in the diaspora come from the middle class in India and experience cultural alienation in the host country. Whereas in the homeland they are part of the majority community and have therefore had a dominant status, in the host country however, they have to come to terms with being a minority, and that too, one among many others. They too are seeking an identity and a bonding as well as asserting a status. If the bonding has to derive from religious nationalism, they disallow any critique of the Hindu past since for them this is a romanticized golden age.
It has also been argued that the endorsing of an upper-caste Hinduism is an attempt at ësanskritizationí by various castes both in the homeland and in the diaspora. Middle incomes in the diaspora become the equivalent of accelerated upward mobility when compared to the economic index and life-style in the home country. This then is taken as the cue for an appropriate middle-class/upper caste pattern of living as well. Social anthropologists and historians have debated the concept of ësanskritizationí as a social process in various periods of history where some castes claimed higher status and adopted the life-style of upper castes. In contemporary society the claim is less to a higher caste and more to acceptance of status through life-style.
An argument frequently made in the home country is in the nature of a complaint: that there is perhaps an element of guilt among those that have migrated from the homeland into a society with a higher living standard, leaving the extended family to fend for itself against the overwhelming odds involved in attempting upward mobility in India.
Some members of the Hindu diaspora who are given to attacking academics and others not sharing their views, are generally in professions related to management and businesses or in technical fields. There seems to be an assumption among many of them that a proficiency in technical professions gives one the right to define all knowledge, even that of the humanities and social sciences. The attempt to claim this right takes the form of aggressively critiquing those scholars who do not support Hindu nationalist views. Most of what is stated by these critics contradicts the professionally accepted view - to put it mildly. It is not surprising that the impressive defense of the targeted scholars has come largely from academics and others working in the humanities and the social sciences.
Running through the critiques like a chorus is the familiar accusation that the liberal historians are communists and an appeal is made to the ghost of McCarthy to rescue Indian history. Such critiques often descend into hatchet jobs, layered with political invective and personal vilification. If the intention is to expose a lack of scholarship, as is also claimed, this has to be demonstrated through scholarship and not through political polemics. Had the intention been to advance scholarship, technical expertise might have been used in various ways, as for instance, in computer-aided analyses of archaeological and historical artifacts, or scientific investigations of material remains, rather than lengthy statements that read like period pieces of a century ago. Admittedly however, there is also a need for recognizing the possible misuse of modern technologies that are used to authenticate dubious claims, such as the so-called Harappan horse seal, now notorious as "the Piltdown seal," which was exposed as a computer manipulation.
The authors of these critiques are also increasingly claiming the authority to intervene in academic decisions taken by universities and research institutions in North America, in effect to threaten academia through marshalling numbers and claiming that their religious sentiments have been offended. The model seems to be that of some sections of the host country. Obstructing free discussion has antecedents in the United States, one aspect of which is, for instance, the contest between creationism and evolutionism in the educational curriculum in some states of the Union.
With the passing of time the culture of migrant groups has to adjust to the new environment of the host country, however much they may wish to ëfreezeí the culture with which they arrived, and which they assume remains relatively unchanged in the homeland. But the latter changes and currently this is happening in India at an accelerated pace. There is therefore a gradual divergence in culture and thinking between migrant settlers and their homeland. This is perhaps most poignantly evident in the use of the original language of a migrant community after a few generations.
The point in time when certain historians are projected as anti-national is linked to the assertion of particular religious identities and their political potential, as was the case with some working on the history of the Sikhs at the time of the Khalistan movement. The assertion of a new political ideology in the home country, supporting religious nationalism, might well explain the present activity in the diaspora. What this underlines is the link between religious nationalism in the home country and its manifestation in the diaspora. At some point therefore the politics of the host country will also have to take into account the politics of such minority groups - and this may well be part of the intention.
And what of the future? At the level of pedagogy, the monitoring of curriculum procedures and the quality of textbooks will have to continue, with a constant effort to keep the discussion on these, open and active. Attitudes to the content of textbooks, is reflective of how the discipline of history is viewed at particular times. It becomes relevant therefore, to understand this activity in the context of the present, and not only as an exercise in constructing the past. The centrality of history to the present is that although its concerns are with the past of the society, it is also an effective means of moulding the present in terms of how societies perceive themselves and their identities.
There is some urgency for historians to continue to explore the history of religion and what is broadly called ëcultureí. These are significant aspects of historical discourse and it must be expected that there will be innovative, even if controversial, explorations. This will also demonstrate how such concepts can be and are being high-jacked for political purposes. Such explorations do not mean a return to something pristine called ëreligioní or ëcultureí. It would mean teasing out the historical strands and linking them to their social roots and contexts, and their actual and ideological roles in different social landscapes. Since they are part of a historical process they cannot be unshackled from their time. Definitions of religion have tended to suppress the role of popular religion - the religion of the majority. This will not only have to be made visible but take its rightful place in redefining the religions of India. Those that have been excluded as having no history - women, Dalits and lower castes, people of the forests - their history will be essential to explaining the past. These explanations will lead to fresh readings of the past.
The discourse on Indian history among academics both in India and elsewhere will have to be maintained through protecting the right to free expression. This will involve resisting attempts by various organizations in India and in the Hindu diaspora to silence divergent views; a silencing that now resorts not only to abuse but even to physical assaults. Historical writing across the intellectual and academic spectrum has to be available to whoever wants to read it. There will be those who will continue to polemicise rather than problematise, but their obstruction of independent historical writing will remain marginal. The intellectual maturity now demanded in the discipline of Indian historical writing has, and will continue to have, its practitioners in India and elsewhere.
However, the apprehension is that the discipline of history in India at a broader level may be forced to go into reverse, in an effort to instill an ideology of religious nationalism. The justification for this will be sought in the claim that the religion and culture of India are being protected. But there can be no concession to the claim that a history propagating religious nationalism is the way to protect the religion and culture of Indian society. There can be no justification for abuse and violence against the books and the authors that one disagrees with. Protection lies in the right to free debate, dialogue and discourse, as has been the tradition in the past. Protection lies in preventing the closing of the Indian mind.
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