Indian historiography under threat

Since independence Indian historians have revisited all the assumptions of colonial historiography; religious identities were no more the determining element. History was no longer mono-causal but multifaceted to include social and economic structures

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:32 pm IST

Published - October 27, 2015 12:45 am IST

Palm leaf manuscripts at a library in Chennai. Scholars like V. S. Pathak and Romila Thapar have  established that ancient India drew its sense of the past from a vast range of sources, of which religious texts were one.

Palm leaf manuscripts at a library in Chennai. Scholars like V. S. Pathak and Romila Thapar have established that ancient India drew its sense of the past from a vast range of sources, of which religious texts were one.

The old colonial notion that ancient Indians had no sense of history has by now been blown to bits by outstanding scholars like V. S. Pathak and Romila Thapar. They have also established that ancient India drew its sense of the past from a vast range of sources, of which religious texts were one, and that its understanding of the past differed radically from the Western notions of history. Romila Thapar, in particular in her magisterial work, The Past Before Us - Historical Traditions of Early North India (published 2013), scrutinises the vast corpus of Vedic texts, the great epics Ramayana and Mahabharata, the itihas-purana traditions, the Buddhist and Jain canonical texts, hagiographies, biographies, inscriptions, chronicles and theatrical compositions like the Mudrarakshasa to form her database and arrives at conclusions which frontally challenge received wisdom from the West.

Court narratives Come medieval India and a new genre of history comes alive. These histories, more like court chronicles, titled Tawarikh , plural of tarikh which denotes both date and history, followed strict codes of chronological and spatial location of an event and were narrative rather than analytical in content, although a certain view point always inheres in any narrative account . There was an interesting dichotomy as part of the narrative. The framework that enclosed the tawarikh was largely derived from Islam, which not only brought a new religion to the world but also a new concept of history. The chronological framework that was almost invariably followed was that of the Islamic hijri era, with the exception of Abul Fazl, Akbar’s courtier and historian. Abul Fazl abandoned it in favour of Ilahi era, created to commemorate Akbar’s accession to the throne, and disengaged history writing from the axis of Islam. At any rate, Abul Fazl had rather a low opinion of the hijri era. Within this overall chronological framework, historians were more particular about locating each event in the precise year of the reign of each ruler whose deeds formed their main narrative.

Harbans Mukhia

More important, they did not look at history as a branch of Islamic theology, unlike their European counterparts. In medieval Europe, histories composed by church fathers, the only literate class, perceived all historical events as manifestations of God’s will. For them the past, present and future — all constituted part of God’s grand design in which nothing happened haphazardly, even as these appeared so to human beings. In medieval India, on the other hand, historical events are treated as individual, independent events and not part of a grand pattern, and historical causation is established in human volition and at best human nature. God is invoked only when the historian is unsure of the veracity of an event, akin to our everyday invocation, “God knows” when we are unsure of something.

We are thus introduced to “strong” or “weak” rulers, “liberal” or “orthodox” rulers and the complete history of their reigns merely unfolds their nature. Best examples: Muhammad bin Tughlaq (“his nature consisting of contradictory qualities”), Akbar (“liberal”), Aurangzeb (“orthodox”). Diversity necessarily inhered in the explanation since no two persons, not even rulers, would possess the same nature.

Colonial invention It was James Mill who metamorphosed the entire, long history of ancient and medieval India, divesting it of all its diversities by making the religious identity of the rulers, instead of their nature, the central category for understanding the past; all diversity of explanation was lost to the uniformity of the religious identity of all the rulers, whether Hindu or Muslim. His History of British Rule , published in 1818, created the tripartite division of India’s past into the Hindu, the Muslim and the British periods. As a Utilitarian and as a colonialist par excellence, he had contempt for religion, for both Hinduism and Islam but more for the former, and emphasised that prior to the British rule, India was mired in religious obscurantism with no worthwhile achievement to its credit; thus the Indians ought to be thankful to the colonialists for setting them on the path of progress.

Though the religious categories created by colonialism have been abandoned even by the British scholars, the present regime, guided and controlled by the RSS, is sticking to them with unprecedented fervour

History of India as told by its own Historians

Since then the tripartite division has remained operative in the teaching of history in India and even when the nomenclature was altered to Ancient, Medieval and Modern, first by Stanley Lane-Poole in 1903, the basis of division remained the same until around the early 1960s. Religious identity and religious conflict were clearly the central analytical categories in this history. Fundamental to it was the assumption that colonialism was the harbinger of “modernity” to India, as it was to the rest of Asia, Africa and Latin America. This view was shared by almost all European thinkers during the 18th and 19th centuries from Montesquieu to Karl Marx, even as their modes of thought as well as their sympathies were as different from one another as chalk was from cheese.

From the late 1950s and 60s, Indian historians began to revisit all the assumptions and categories of historiography handed down to them by colonialism. A few, indeed very few, of the historians who fundamentally revised colonial history writing were committed Marxists and many more were not. It is the Marxists who questioned even Marx’s understanding of India’s past, including his notion of the Asiatic Mode of Production. One substitute for it was the concept of “Indian Feudalism”, but this was soon thrown open, with the question “Was There Feudalism in Indian History?” – the title of an essay that became the centre of a long-drawn, international debate, which unearthed several facets that lay unseen below the surface. The long cherished colonial notion that India (indeed the Orient) was unfamiliar with any socio-economic mutations before the colonial engine of modernity was set in motion, was blown to smithereens.

Religious identities were assigned their due priority in the saga of change, but were no more the lone, determining element. History was no longer mono-causal but multifaceted. Sights were moved from individual character of rulers to social and economic structures, technology and trade as the motors of change, uprisings of peasants and artisans against the state’s exploitative excesses. A threshold had been crossed.

From the 1980s and 90s yet another threshold was crossed when still newer problematics, themes, newer methods of looking at history evolved. The history of women and gender, ecology, inter-personal relations, sexuality, history of the notions of time, space, habitats, of perceptions of masculinity and femininity, the nature of polities, alternative views of history evident in the vernacular languages, the enormous dynamism of Hindu philosophy especially in the 17th century, the evolution of Bhakti culture and worldview in opposition to elite Brahamanic culture, the formation of identities and most important the recognition of and respect for immense diversity in the perceptions of the past either as a mega narrative or as individual events such as the Partition of India — all these and more have taken us a long, very long, distance from the colonialist and even Marxist historiography. We live in a fascinatingly fast-moving environment.

Hindutva discomfort It is this immense diversity and its inescapable premise — discussion, disputation and debate at a level of professional competence — that the Hindutva brigade finds so uncomfortable, largely because history can no longer revert to mono-causal explanations, which is its sole and entire worldview. It is no surprise that while we had some outstanding professional historians down to the 1960s, like R. C. Majumdar, who were committed to the “Hindu” version of history and were yet deeply rooted in the discipline, the Hindutva brigade has since failed to produce any notable professional historian. The new developments in the discipline have passed them by.

The categories created by colonialism have been abandoned even by the British scholars as a consequence of interaction with Indian historians. But the present regime, guided and controlled by the RSS, is still sticking to them with unprecedented fervour. Ironically, the Hindutva brigade touts its claim to “Indianising” Indian history as a giant step towards cleansing it of colonialist (and Marxist) pollutants. How masterfully George Orwell had in his fictional Nineteen Eighty Four portrayed the crucial role of “doublespeak” in running a duplicitous state system.

(Harbans Mukhia is National Fellow, Indian Council of Historical Research)

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