Romila Thapar: Our History, Your History, Whose History?

The history taught to our children in schools should be based on reliable evidence vetted by professional historians, insists Prof. Romila Thapar

Romila Thapar: Our History, Your History, Whose History?

Romila Thapar

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.

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.

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.

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 thousand years having victimised the Hindus, treating them as enslaved. It is claimed that when the Muslims invaded India and came to power, they victimised and enslaved the Hindus for a thousand 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.

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.

James Mill wrote the first modern history of India in 1817. Much of it was his personal perspective of the history. Mill maintained that Indian history was that of two nations, the Hindu and the Muslim, quite distinctly separate and constantly in conflict...

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. Arab traders after the spread of Islam settled in the flourishing towns. 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. 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 ninth 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.

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 offices. 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 relocation 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 Agra fort, relocated 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. 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.

Holi celebrations circa 1640-1650. Court paintings of the imperial ateliers show many facets 
of the culture brought by Hindu wives, particularly celebrating festivals, which appear to 
have been assimilated
Holi celebrations circa 1640-1650. Court paintings of the imperial ateliers show many facets of the culture brought by Hindu wives, particularly celebrating festivals, which appear to have been assimilated

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 Hindu wives, particularly celebrating festivals, which appear to have been assimilated.

The 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 thirteenth 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 sixteenth century text, the Sarva-darsana-samgraha, states categorically that the Shramanas—in which category are included Buddhists, Jainas and Charvakas, and also the Turushkas, they are all called nastika, non-believers in deity and lacking in caste status.

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

Depicting an altogether different social group there is a rather unusual document of the early seventeenth 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 fifty-two 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 victimisation.

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 fourteenth 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 Ganesha, 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.

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?

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.

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 re-assess the quality of the opium?

The lecture was delivered on 14 January 2023. Courtesy and copyright: India International Centre, New Delhi

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