Going backwards on Indian history

The recent University Grants Commission (UGC) directive framing the undergraduate history syllabus points to the involvement of ‘experts’ who are still stuck in the discipline as it was practised and taught years ago in the 1950s.

A crucial element of the discipline is its division into different periods, or periodisation. The notion of periodisation in history was alien to all societies and civilisations, until Europe instituted it towards the end of the 17th century, though its evolution had started from the 16th century in the history of Christian theology and its Church. The tripartite division of ancient, medieval and modern history was formalised by a German, Christoph Cellarius, in 1688, and was extended beyond theology and Church. Underlying it was the assumption that with the “modern” age of rationality, Europe had left its ‘dark age’ of superstition and irrationality behind. As Europe colonised the rest of the world, its intellectual constructs were universalised as well — among them was periodisation. If Europe had emerged from its “dark age”, the rest of the world was still lodged there and needed to emulate Europe’s progress.


Three periods

Its implantation in India came in a further distorted form: James Mill’s division of history into Hindu, Muslim and British periods in his notorious book A History of British India published in 1817. Whereas the ancient-medieval-modern nomenclature implied Europe’s emergence from the medieval “dark age” to the “modern” age of reason through its own autonomous evolution, India, in Mill’s vision, was still stuck in its own dark age of religion from which the British colonial rule was obligated to rescue it. Hence, the asymmetrical Hindu-Muslim-British period.

As a utilitarian, Mill treated religion with utter contempt. If his comments on Islam were derogatory, those on Hinduism were scandalous. “The vices of falsehood, indeed they carry to a height almost unexampled among the other races of men” is one of his moderate comments on Hindus. However, the periodisation schema became pervasive in every book of Indian history irrespective of its author. Its basic frame implied that Indian history predominantly comprised the accounts of conquests and defeats, administrative measures and relevant “policies” of dynasties and individual rulers, and that their driving force was their religious fervour. History could thus be divided into the Hindu period beginning with the Aryans (Harappa had not been discovered yet) and ending with the death of Harsha in 647 CE, the Muslim period from 1206 with the establishment of the Delhi Sultanate and ending with Aurangzeb’s death in 1707, and the British period opening roughly from 1765 with the grant of Diwani to the East India Company. The gaps between 647 CE and 1206 and 1707 and 1765 were marked by a historical drought.

Mill also emphasised the exclusivity of and implicitly irreconcilable hostility between the Hindu and Muslim communities, a precursor of the two-nation theory of Savarkar-Jinnah, which perhaps explains the UGC’s preference for it.

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Even when the nomenclature of periods was altered to ‘ancient’, ‘medieval’ and ‘modern’ in 1903 by Stanley Lane-Poole, the basis of the division remained unaltered until after Independence. Notably, the new nomenclature came in his book Mediaeval India Under Mohammedan Rule. However, for any undergraduate in 1955-60 at Delhi University, almost the same dates demarcated the three periods, with Hindu-Muslim-British often interchanged with ancient-medieval-modern. The scope of the study also remained largely tied to Mill’s parameters.

Multi-layered explanations

The 1960s saw a sea change in Indian historians’ understanding of the past, which undermined the given periodisation. The study of history tied to the story of dynasties and rulers and which located all historical explanation in a single cause, namely religion, was found very restrictive.

As historians began to explore new facets of the past — social structures, economic drives, cultural mores, politics as exercises in the notions of power and social and ethical norms, confrontations and accommodations at the social, cultural and politico-administrative levels — the discipline began to move from hitherto simple explanations to complex, multi-layered ones.

An immediate and major casualty of this metamorphosis was the inherited periodisation and fixed dates of transition from one period to the other. Changes in reigns and dynasties can be traced to fixed dates and years, but social, economic and cultural changes occur as long-term processes that are hard to pin down to specific dates, years, or at times, even decades. It is interesting that while the tripartite schema of periodisation remained, its temporal boundaries began to get flexible to account for these. The notion of the ‘early medieval India’ was an important intervention covering changes at the ground level between, say, the eighth and the 12th centuries, both being porous boundaries, thus giving the term a new meaning.

The use of the pre-fix ‘pre-modern’ for the period starting from the 16th century has gained considerable traction in recent decades.

By the 1980s and thereafter, history began to acquire much more expansive dimensions, such as the study of ecology (of deserts, forests and rains), of women’s role in shaping history both in the household or in the community, or even at the level of the state, ever-evolving notions of time and space, perceptions of the past, gender identities of local or regional deities, or gender identities even of state systems, diseases and their cures, migrations all through history, the history of memories, the history of substructures sustaining massive imperial structures, and so on. All this is already percolating to undergraduate levels in universities and colleges.

The UGC draft is completely ignorant of these magnificent departures Indian history has registered since Independence and wants to take us back to James Mill’s colonial format, which is too simplistic academically to be tenable and has already demonstrated its social and political consequences in the country’s Partition. The prescribed reading list reinforces this ignorance by recommending books mostly written in the 1950s. Is this the grand vision for our ‘New India’?

The author taught history at JNU

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Printable version | May 16, 2021 11:52:27 PM |

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