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The strange irony of Indian history

The strange irony of Indian history

Indian history presents us with a delightful irony. On the one hand, most schools and colleges teach it in such offputting manner, with stale textbooks full of howlers, that most students come to hate the topic and happily erase it all from their memories the day after the exam. And on the other hand, Indian history seems to be alive and well, if we judge by the numerous historical debates that have filled the public space, from the Aryan theory to the Ayodhya issue, from the record of Aurangzeb or Tipu Sultan to pinning down the responsibility for the Partition, from “terrorism” in the Freedom Movement to Subhash Chandra Bose’s ultimate fate. That such “debates” are conducted more often through mud-slinging, if not demonization, than in a mature and civilized manner is another matter.

We also have a colourful range of scholars: At one end of the spectrum, some, dreaming of Puranic scales of time, are tempted to take Indian history millions of years into the past (or at least many thousands more than archaeology would permit), to visualize vimanas and other advanced technological devices from earliest times, and to imagine ancient India as a perfect golden age. And at the other end, scholars claiming to practise “scientific” history produce, instead, a brand heavily inflected by ill-suited imported ideologies and models, leave alone factual and methodological flaws. In between, are numerous solid, unprejudiced and meticulous historians who are passionate about the discipline; unfortunately, the wider public rarely gets to hear about them as the media can’t get desired sound bites from them .

Is this scene unique to India? By no means. Because history is at the root of the identity individuals, communities and nations choose to give themselves, it has immense bearing on current situations, and no nation escapes historical controversies. Did the Hebrews migrate from Egypt to Palestine as described in the biblical Exodus?

Can the French nation be said to have been created by Joan of Arc? Did the “American holocaust” of Native Americans by the Spanish, Portuguese and British wipe out 100 million lives, as asserted by some scholars? Did the nations that declared their “neutrality” during World War II end up helping the Nazis? Did Stalin’s rule of the USSR result in some 60 million deaths? Is there firm evidence for the genocide of Armenians in 1915 by Turkey? Was Tibet ever an integral part of China, as the latter proclaims? Could the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been avoided?

Such questions can rarely be answered with a fair degree of certainty. Yet it is the job of history to try and answer. What is history, then? A few days ago, I was amused to read that Pakistan’s Sindh Minister for Culture, Tourism and Antiquities demanded that Ashutosh Gowariker, director of the newly released film Mohenjo Daro apologize to the Sindhi people for “distorting historical facts and making a mockery of the 5000-year-old highly developed [Harappan] culture and civilization.” I have not watched the film, which does seem to have taken some liberties, but did not expect an avowed piece of fiction and entertainment to be taken so seriously. It is interesting to note in passing that many Indians feel similarly connected to the Indus civilization, many of whose sites are located on this side of the international border. Even such a crude example illustrates sharply enough how history - or protohistory, in this case - remains alive in sensitive ways and is intertwined with questions of national identity.

Yet “history is the lie commonly agreed upon,” in Voltaire’s opinion, which is hardly an optimistic definition. Two hundred years later, the U.S. historians Will and Ariel Durant were a little more explicit: “Our knowledge of any past event is always incomplete, probably inaccurate, beclouded by ambivalent evidence and biased historians, and perhaps distorted by our own patriotic or religious partisanship. Most history is guessing, and the rest is prejudice.” An honest statement, but still not too hopeful. If, as the British historian E.H. Carr wrote, history is “an unending dialogue ... between the society of today and the society of yesterday,” is such a dialogue possible at all when the data it is built upon is so deficient?

In India’s case, Tagore, in an insightful essay titled “The History of Bharatavarsha”, bitterly complained in 1903, “Our real ties are with the Bharatavarsha that lies outside our textbooks. . It appears as if we are nobody in India; as if those who came from outside alone matter.” He was echoed in 1942 by the scholar and statesman K M Munshi: “Most of our histories of India ... deal with certain events and periods not from the Indian point of view, but from that of some source to which they are partial and which by its very nature is loaded against India.”

That, of course, was a reference to colonial histories written by the colonial masters. Has the situation much improved? Can we claim that we now have an “Indian perspective” on Indian history? Today, sober-minded Indologists and historians look at India as a civilization rather than a nation in the modern sense of the term; they ask when and how it emerged, and how it managed to integrate the myriad cultures of the subcontinent into one recognizable whole maintaining its original diversity. They query the social, political and administrative systems it evolved, its cultural developments, its myriad ethnic and linguistic units, and its interface with other cultures and civilizations. Despite yawning gaps in the archaeological, epigraphic, literary and economic records, a picture does emerge.

For a perspective of India to be successful, it should, in my opinion, build a sense of identity and belonging to a stream of civilization. But aren’t there many “ideas of India”? I propose to explore this question in later articles.

Author: Michel Danino

Published: Sept 24, 2016 (Originally published in

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