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‘The Loss Of Hindustan: The Invention Of India’ review: Land of many histories

In the newly constituted Bihar assembly, MLA Akhtarul Iman said he would take his oath not with Hindustan, but with Bharat, as the Constitution mentions Bharat and not Hindustan. There was a minor commotion as it was clear that Iman wanted to underline that he was not a citizen of ‘Hindustan’. This understanding of Hindustan as Hindusthan was ironic, as the two stand in complete contrast to each other — Hindustan, indicating those that lived on this side of the river Sindhu and later as “an archive, a space and a belonging for diverse people” versus Hindusthan, a land for those who identify by the Hindu faith, something popularised by Savarkar’s Hindutva.

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Hindustan, Hindusthan, Bharat or India, the title we choose to ascribe to this land, and how that shapes it is the subject of Manan Ahmed’s examination in The Loss of Hindustan, a masterful journey into many histories of the sub-continent. It is about a history written by powerful colonisers which went onto define it to the outsider, and later became the worldview of the inhabitants themselves. It is about reading history to see the present clearly and then examine the future. Ahmed’s work is of traversing the history of histories in India over the ages and explain how it served as a precursor to people’s evaluation of themselves. The Loss of Hindustan boldly tackles the question of present-day prejudices and majoritarian sentiment in the sub-continent, whether Hindutva or Sunni Muslim, and what it might owe to how history has been crafted in the past two centuries.

Foreigner mode

The Hindu revivalist framing of India of first ancient ‘glorious’ Hindu rule, then ‘dark’ medieval Muslim rule, followed by the British rule is closely derived from the James Mill kind of writing, which kept slightly less than one half of the citizenry in perpetual foreigner mode. Manan says that this idea of the Muslim as foreigner was made possible, as mostly British officers or “soldier-scribes” wrote history, relying on but then selectively carving out and distorting rich histories written by Indians of their past.

Nearly one-third of the book is about this “bowlderisation” of older histories, especially that of the early 17th century Deccani historian, Muhammed Qasim Firishta’s Tarikh-i-Firishta. Firishta had seen his task as writing history of a wide variety of people. The threat he identified early on was of war-mongering Europeans. Alexander Dow, Jonathan Scott and John Briggs treated the Tarikh cynically, to write their own versions — seizing its treasures but mauling its soul.

The destruction of the notion of Hindustan was not only about its geography. The template the colonial writers found necessary to implant, especially after their reading of the 1857 disruption of the Company’s plunder, is well elaborated on Page 66 — “the paradigm of the five thousand years, with its attendant Golden Age, had posited an India that was timeless, devoid of historical change — a conceptualisation that cemented itself as the very notion of a lack of history itself. In contrast to ‘native’ India was the Muslim invader from Arabia.”

Cleaving in the mind

Any sense of shared and bonded living, exemplified by ‘Hindustan’ had to be destroyed to ensure a durable innings for the Crown and for it to be thought of as a force of good. For both, there was no better place to start than with the history books. The erasure of Hindustan via building these histories was important to keep the jewel in the crown under control and the needs of the British empire were to be served. But the cleaving that followed in the mind had long-standing implications, as it shaped India’s early 20th century and eventually led to Partition.

All ideas of nationhood must draw on an imagination or draw up an imagination of the nation, and memory and history is central to those ideas. Decades after the idea of Hindustan was sandpapered into India, leading to a yearning for an ethnic division, India’s first future Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote The Discovery of India in Ahmednagar prison in 1944. That too wove together an imagination about India, its ancient past and imbued it with values that would help in forging a nationhood with diversity as its central feature, and accommodation a national ideal. This sense that India and the sub-continent was a crucible across millennia, gave every kind of Indian a stake in the project as well as accorded a sense of exceptionalism to Indians in South Asia. Amidst a region of nations defined by ethnicity, India stood as a glorious outlier.

At this dangerous time when India becomes indistinguishable from its neighbours it once gave sermons to, what must historians do? Manan has two insights to offer, the first a clear acceptance by them that history can actually impact real lives as dangerous “narratives of separation” can move quickly “from books to the market.” Secondly, apart from the acknowledgement of loss, they should quickly “imagine ways forward that do not yield to the majoritarian present, that do not inherit the past as a certainty, and do not romanticize that which is lost.” The Loss of Hindustan sees itself as part of “our collective responsibility to speak against the conformism of prejudice” as well as “our collective task to reimagine the past.”

The Loss Of Hindustan: The Invention Of India; Manan Ahmed Asif, Harvard University Press/ Harper, ₹599.

The reviewer is a journalist based in Delhi.

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