THEMES

Past and Prejudice
March 1, 1997
Past and Prejudice
Release our Past from Prejudicial Renderings that serve supremacist ideas


 
Relieving our past from prejudice will not only contribute to a more rich and creative understanding of it but could also, at this fragile juncture, contribute to a more rational understanding of the present

 
The successful penetration of a single term, Babar ki aulad (sons of Babar), in the Indian socio-political discourse shows the remarkable success of Hindutva ideology in interpreting past events for us. A series of connected images get conjured up: the marauding, fanatical Muslim invader who has raped and killed, plundered our temples and imposed Islam upon us.
 
Some of ‘Babar's descendants’ didn’t merely divide the motherland but a section of them still live amongst us, claiming equal rights. The past decade has been live witness to the bloody potential of such communal discourse. Text books are today only one of the means by which communal ideologies are perpetuated.
 
On the flip side of the coin, Muslim communal historiography is evident in Pakistan's text books. Both these communalist renderings of history are an obstacle to a holistic and creative association with our past.
 
Historians inevitably enter the debate because communal ideology always uses distorted images of historical events for its justification. Nowhere was this more clearly evident than right through the mobilisation for the Ramjanmabhoomi campaign. And the history teacher is the crucial, live link between this vast body of analysis and the child.
 
Apart from publishing Communalism Combat, we at Sabrang Communications have been experimenting with putting together a module of a secular education project - KHOJ - for the past three years. As part of this effort, we have felt the need to creatively link the independent historian with the history teacher, who today is unequipped to deal with the communal onslaught.
 
As a beginning, we organised a two day, intensive workshop to enable such an interaction between independent historians of stature and history teachers from a wide spectrum of Bombay schools. Apart from the plan for further action the workshop began with detailed presentations of the four periods of Indian history: Ancient, Early Medieval, Medieval and Modern. Apart from this public note of gratitude for professors Romila Thapar, Keshavan Velluthat, Anirudha Ray and K.N. Panikkar for their enthusiastic participation in the workshop, we present excerpts from their presentations for Combat readers.
 
KHOJ also proposes to publish in the near future a detailed report of the proceedings of the workshop and also produce a video on Communalism and the Reading of Indian history, as a resource for schools
Why rulers patronised and pillaged others’ religious places.
Prof. Romila Thapar

 
Prof. Romila Thapar

Ancient India

Within colonial historiography, we have two distinct trends- the Orientalists and the Utilitarians. The first presented a sympathetic image of a Golden Age. The Utilitarians (James Mill for example) on the other hand, moved away from this romantic vision of a glorious Indian past and periodised Indian history into three periods, Hindu, Muslim and British (not Christian). This was a meaningless categorisation as it no way reflects or characterises an age.
 
In their search for an identity in the early part of this century, nationalist historians harked back to the descriptions and imagery of golden ages of the past. To fight colonialism these interpretations of Indian history pointed to a backward-looking utopia.
 
All these streams show a close link between ideology and history writing. And it was in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s that the culmination of this link, this time in the form of communal ideologies and history writing, became transparent. This clash of communalisms continues with us (Hindu and Muslim communalist history writing).
 
One way of breaking out or away from these kinds of motivated interpretations of history is to study an age not merely through political events but also through social and economic relations.
 
A major theory of historical explanation which evolved in the 19th century was the theory of the Aryan race. This theory, developed as an explanation of common origin by Max Mueller who held that the Aryans originated in Central Asia and came as invaders into North-Western India, subjugating the locals and imposing their language, Indo-Aryan (technical term for Vedic Sanskrit). This theory divided Indian society along racial lines arguing that the fair arya and the dark dasa of the Rigveda were racial distinctions.
 
This theory is untenable because it equates language with race. Language is an acquired, cultural feature which can be learnt by a member of any race provided it is taught whereas race has got to do with biological descent.
 
An interesting thing happened with this theory of the Aryan invasion. Jyotiba Phule argued that the Aryan invasion brought the brahmanas who subjugated the indigenous peoples; thus making them - sudras, dalits and tribals - the rightful claimants and inheritors of the land.
 
At the other end is the Hindutva version of history which holds that there was no invasion, the Aryans being indigenous to India, therefore giving a clean, linear descent to the Hindu Arya as the rightful inheritor of the land.
 
The explanation of origin is critical to any communal ideology. For Hindutva to be tenable, it must be established that only Hindu Aryas are true descendants of the land. How else can the notion of pitrubhumi hold valid?
 
Neither of these interpretations, however, is borne out by historical evidence. Apart from the Rigveda being the earliest source that refers to the arya, today we have the evidence provided by archaeology and linguistics. The Harappan cities cannot be equated with Vedic society as the urban culture of the former is distinctly different from the predominantly pastoral culture of the latter.
 
Archaeological evidence from the North-West of the subcontinent and dating to 3000 B.C. onwards provides no evidence of a large scale invasion or migration. However there is evidence of contact between the North-West and the areas beyond in Afghanistan, North-Eastern Iran and the Oxus valley, especially in the second millennium B.C. That would suggest there was a frequent movement of people and goods between these areas.
 
Religious monuments, their creation and destruction, often become central to communal discourse. In studying history, we must understand that religious monuments represent the religions of the elite, that they are a statement of wealth, power and authority. Only the rich build monuments and because the religious monument, be it the temple, mosque or stupa has also been the safe deposit for a lot of wealth, they have been the target over the ages of ravage and plunder.
                                              
Religious conflicts there have been many and periodic. But that these have been only between the Muslims and the Hindus is nonsense. Shaivites and Buddhists had conflicts, King Shashanka of Assam destroyed Buddhist temples in the North-East and there is evidence of Jains and Shaivites clashing in the region of Karnataka during the ancient period.
 
When we study Indian history, we also need to examine religion in Indian history which was quite different from the way religion evolved through the history of Europe. Indian or sub continental history is replete with instances, from the ancient period on, of the patronage by rulers of religions other than their own. The ruler or the monarch had to observe a policy of pluralism.
 
This is unheard of in European history where you would never hear of a Christian monarch ever building a mosque. Various eras in Indian history are full of such examples: during the rule by the Kushans, there was evidence of a co-existence of Shaivism and Buddhism, during the medieval period, the Moghul kings provide examples of this.
 
So we need to ask ourselves the motive or reason behind this multi-purpose patronage? Was it a good political policy? Or was it pragmatic for a pluralist society?
 
---Prof. Romila Thapar
J.N.U. New Delhi


In 1997, Khoj education for a plural India programme held a workshop that enabled interaction
between in India's leading historians and school teachers in Mumbai. This article is the edited transcript of the lecture by professor Romila Thapar. 
Archived from Communalism Combat, March 1997 - Cover Story

 
The myth of the Gupta Empire as the ‘Golden Age’ for India
Prof. Kesavan Veluthat


Prof. Kesavan Veluthat
 

Early Medieval India

 
One of the elements which nationalism draws sustenance from is a particular construction of history. During the anti-imperialist struggles in India in the first half of the 20th century, creation of golden ages in our past would have served to boost the morale of the educated middle classes.
 
In the Gupta empire were identified all the elements with which golden ages are made by historians.
 
Among them were mentioned an all-round development in the political, cultural and economic fields. The Guptas were shown to have repulsed "foreign" invaders such as the Hunas. In the field of the arts, developments in painting and sculpture were projected. Literary achievements were also underlined with Kalidasa being the best example.
 
What was identified as Hinduism was shown to have reached its height with the Puranas representing its highest glory.  Gold coins and other indicators of economic prosperity were also taken up. However, ever since Kosambi, questions have been raised about the quality of this golden age, much of which is as Professor Thapar says, shown as more tinsel.
 
As for the revival of nationalism under the Guptas, it has been shown in recent years that the only positive evidence of any direct engagement which the Guptas had with the Hunas comes from the fragmentary play, Devichandraguptam, where Ramagupta is shown to have been defeated by them and also nearly surrendered his queen Dhruvadevi to them!
 
The Vamsanucharita sections of the Puranas, the other contemporary literary source of the period, speak of the Guptas as comparable to the mlecchas and unrighteous. It is only in the exaggerated claims in their own inscriptions that they are described as great, which were used by nationalist historians.       
 
Thus, Kosambi says, rather than the Guptas reviving Indian nationalism, Indian nationalism revived the Guptas! In the matter of cultural achievements shown as part of the "Hindu renaissance" there has also been considerable rethinking. The sculptures and paintings bearing the Gupta stamp, from Mathura, Ajanta and Bagh, are mostly Buddhist and not related to Hindu themes. 
 
Even in literature, Kalidasa is shown as carrying forward a tradition dating from a much earlier period, not to speak of the doubts raised about his date. Even about the happy position enjoyed by the brahmanical sections of society, there have been notes of dissent.
 
So also, in the matter of economic prosperity, the age of the Guptas and immediately thereafter is shown as witnessing the creation of several shades of superior rights over and the subjection and immobility of peasantry. Women were subjected to increasing hardships, instances of sati went up. In fact, women and sudras come to be bracketed together in the texts. 

On the whole, therefore the idea that the age of the Guptas represented a Golden Age does not hold much water any more.
 
When this demystification of the watershed of the early medieval period has been effected, a straighter thinking is possible about this and the subsequent periods. There is no particular glory attached to the "Hindu" period and, therefore, no more degeneration and decay attributed to the later, "Muslim" period. Communal historiography loses one of its sharpest teeth. 
 
--- Prof. Kesavan Veluthat
Mangalore University
 

In 1997, Khoj education for a plural India programme held a workshop that enabled interaction between in India's leading historians and school teachers in Mumbai. This article is the edited transcript of the lecture by professor Kesavan Veluthat. 
Archived from Communalism Combat, March 1997 - Cover Story 

 
What makes Akbar ‘liberal, secular’ and Aurangzeb ‘fanatical’?

Prof Anirudha Ray


Medieval India

When we speak of the Medieval Age we unconsciously refer to the "Muslim invasion of India." We must be very careful in the use of such terminology; the invasion was Turkish not Muslim.
 
Some important questions need to be asked when we read or interpret history relating to this critical period. We need to ask ourselves:
 
> Was there a large scale massacre of Hindus during the Medieval period?
 
> Was there a forced conversion of Hindus after invasions, did persecutions take place?
 
> Why was there no popular resistance to "Muslim" medieval rule?
 
Some of the answers to these questions are very surprising. There is one concrete example of a large scale massacre by Allauddin Khilji near Delhi. Who were the victims? Neo-Muslims (newly converted Muslims) and according to the historical source Ziauddin Barani thousands of people were killed.
 
There were some specific occasions during the Medieval period when the state participated in conversion. This was only when the monarchs were faced with a rebellion. The reasons and motives behind these conversions were not religious but a question of ensuring subjugation and loyalty.
 
An underlying feature of the Medieval age -- and this was the primary motto of every king of that period anywhere in the world--was that he never forgave a rebel. That was why, in the Indian context, conversion was thrust on a rebel only after he had shown disloyalty.
 
Or else, how can any historian explain how there was no conversion, nor any attempt in that direction to convert the Rajputs?
 
One of the major problems in the communal approach to history is when we make the cardinal error of characterizing an age through the character of a king. This is particularly evident when we speak, or describe, or teach the Medieval Age of Indian history. Except for Pakistani scholars, we are told by both Hindu and Muslim scholars that the reign of Akbar was a golden one, he is described as Akbar the Great and furthermore as liberal and secular.
 
I have no personal problem with labelling him "Great" because that is a purely personal assessment. But to embellish him with labels like liberal and secular -- both modern and not medieval terms -- is to commit grave injustice in our understanding of the Medieval Age as a whole.
 
What else is being achieved by classifying 50 out of 500 years of Medieval rule as liberal and secular? Don't we immediately, by implication and comparison, classify the rest of the period as "dark"?
 
Aurangzeb has suffered most at the hands of such stereotyping. Professor Athar Ali's book also informs us that while under Akbar's reign there were 21.5 per cent of Hindus in the Moghul administration, during the last 20 years of Aurangzeb's rule (when due to the imposition of jaziya tax he has been dubbed a Hindu-hater), the Moghul ruler employed as many as 31.5 per cent of Hindus in his administration.
 
Ironically, under Aurangzeb, the percentage of Rajput nobles reduced but the share of Maratha nobility within the Moghul administration grew considerably.
 
Besides, we also know that the same Aurangzeb who has cruelly been labelled a temple-breaker also gave enormous grants to temples.
 
--- Prof. Anirudha Ray
Calcutta University


In 1997, Khoj education for a plural India programme held a workshop that enabled interaction between in India's leading historians and school teachers in Mumbai. This article is the edited transcript of the lecture by professor Anirudha Ray. 
Archived from Communalism Combat, March 1997 - Cover Story
Growth of Hindu and Muslim communalisms was a parallel process

Prof K. N. Panikkar



Prof K. N. Panikkar
 
Modern India

For the British, as rulers trying to understand and control Indian society, it was important to develop an understanding of what Indian society is. It was through this process that the category of a community of Hindus and a community of Muslims began to be widely and increasingly used.
 
This use of community terminology became part of our scholastics and analysis. What we need to ask ourselves is: does this category as a category of analysis give us the whole picture?
                                                               
Conversion, both as a continuing and a historical phenomenon is an important facet that is constantly brought to bear on communal discourse. The most important aspect to remember when we look at the issue of conversion historically is that the largest concentrations of Muslim population are not in states where there was a Muslim ruler or dynasty; quite the contrary. What does this tell us?
 
For example, in the Malabar Coast in Kerala, large scale conversions to Islam did not take place during the invasion by Tipu Sultan. The largest conversions to Islam on the Malabar Coast were during the period 1843-1890 and were directly linked to the fact that in 1843 slavery was abolished in this region. As a result, large numbers of formerly oppressed castes bonded in slavery by upper caste Hindus moved over to Islam which they perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a religion of equality and justice.
 
Religious stigmatisation also, unfortunately affects our reading and interpretation of the reigns of specific historical rulers like say Tipu Sultan or Shivaji. Do we know, that it was during the reign of Tipu Sultan that a Maratha Sardar, a good believing Hindu, invaded Mysore several times and during one such attack plundered and destroyed the Sringeri Math.
 
Who was responsible for the reconstruction of the Math and the pooja that was performed before the reconstruction? Tipu Sultan. We need to ask ourselves what a "good, secular Hindu Sardar" was doing destroying the Math and how come a "fanatical Muslim ruler" restored it?
 
During the invasion of the same Tipu Sultan of Kerala, there were hundreds killed, not because they were Hindus but because the people of Kerala resisted his invasion.
 
There are hundreds of such examples in history. We need to search them out and examine in the right perspective what were the motives of the rulers of those times for such actions? What were the politics and the historical processes behind the destruction and plunder of temples, the invasion of new territories and kingdoms and the conversion to a different faith?
 
Another aspect critical to the study of Modern Indian History is the counter positions of communalisms, Hindu Communalism and Muslim communalism that have so dramatically affected the politics of the subcontinent. We must be very conscious when we read and interpret this period to understand that the development of both communalisms was a parallel process that is not rooted in the second or third decades of the 20th century (the birth of the Muslim League or the Hindu Mahasabha) but must be traced back to the middle of the 19th century.
                                                                                         
This critical juncture in the communalisation process (mid 19th century) has to be more closely examined by us: it will reveal how these processes occurred in parallel, how the Arya Samaj that began as a reform movement turned communal and similarly the Aligarh movement that began as a movement for internal reform also became communal.
 
Another critical aspect to a non-communal approach to the study of modern Indian history is rooted in understanding the development of the concept of Indian nationalism that was always characterised by its anti-colonial thrust.
 
We have through the early part of this century distinct trends visible that go beyond the anti-colonial, negative thrust, and moving towards a positive understanding of Indian nationalism. One is Anantakumar Swamy's ‘Essays on Nationalist Idealism’ that explores the real essence of a nation as being not politics but culture. The other is Gandhi's ‘Hind Swaraj’ which explains the essence of nationalism as civilizational. Both these thinkers did not link the concept of nationalism with religion.
 
Yet another contribution in this area was by Radhakumar Mukherjee who in his works, ‘Fundamental Unity of India’ and ‘Culture and Nationalism’ tried to conceptually trace the relationship of nationalism to the ancient period of history. He sought to link culture with religion.
 
In 1924, Veer Savarkar's ‘Hindutva’ forcefully pushed this link, between culture and religion. The compositeness and plurality of Indian tradition was overlooked completely when Savarkar explained how the Indian nation evolved. In his chapter ‘The Six Glorious Epochs of India’ where his key questions were: How did India become a nation? How did Hindus become a nation? The book, forcefully written, is based on an erroneous interpretation of facts.
 
But the important thing for us to understand is why Savarkar did this given his own history of being a revolutionary. In his earlier work written some years earlier, ‘National War of Independence’ the same Savarkar describes the 1857 War of Indian Independence as the combined efforts of Hindus and Muslims and the rule of Bahadur Shah Zafar in New Delhi as its culmination as "five glorious days of Indian history."
 
--- Prof K. N. Panikkar
Jawahar Lal Nehru University, New Delhi


In 1997, Khoj education for a plural India programme held a workshop that enabled interaction
between in India's leading historians and school teachers in Mumbai. This article is the edited transcript of the lecture by professor K. N Panikar. 
Archived from Communalism Combat, March 1997 - Cover Story