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Updated: Nov 23, 2020

Presented at the International Conference on Teaching History, Calcutta, 30 July- 1 August 2015.

'In fact, it would be no exaggeration to suggest that the communal interpretation of history has been the main ideology of communalism in India; without it little would be left of communal ideology.'

Bipan Chandra (1984: 209)

'No conscientious historian should aid the enchainment of human minds through systematic abuse of his [or her] discipline.'

Sudhir Chandra (1973: 1625)

Introduction: Current Perceptions

In this essay I examine two widely held ideas on the historical reconstruction of communal identities. First is the complex and changing relations between popular perceptions of history and the academic practice of it, between textbook and popular histories on one hand and specialized historical research on the other. Professional historians in university departments claim that the communalist history being taught by school- and college-teachers is simply untruthful, with little support from research-based historical knowledge. To teach divided histories, in other words, is to indulge in falsification or vulgarisation of academic history. In our opinion, the argument betrays only a certain loss of memory, the obliviousness of the professional historians to the considerable support that divided histories enjoy in other professional quarters.

Second, and quite removed from this first idea, is the issue of periodisation of Indian history and its bearing on the reconstruction of communal identities. Here professional history—more accurately, research-based production of historical knowledge, including by professional historians—is acknowledged to have done real damage, for this periodisation was not traditional to the Indians’ ways of thinking, but a historical artefact, created, sustained and disseminated by the modern discipline of history. It is common belief among professionals today, repeated a thousand times in writing and speech, that a good deal of the modern communalist malaise is due to the kind of history being taught in schools and colleges, the origins of which are traced to a certain manner of periodising of Indian history by James Mill in the early nineteenth century. A widely consulted textbook puts it most emphatically: ‘Mill divided Indian history into three periods, the Hindu, Muslim and British. The seeds of communal historiography were thus sown.’ (Jha 1998: 20)

It may justifiably be argued that more than the periodisation itself, it is the portrayal of the periods that should matter. In a standard communalist restoration of the past, to the glories of the ‘Hindu’ Ancient—with its all-round achievements in empire-building, economic prosperity, literature and art, science and technology, and synthesis and tolerance—are juxtaposed the ignominies of the ‘Muslim’ Medieval, with its comprehensive record of bloody oppressions and tyrannies, intolerance and bigotry, social degeneration and economic decline, and wanton destruction of the many splendours of Hindu culture and civilization (never mind an Akbar here or a Taj Mahal there!).

Here, however, we are interested in the issue of periodisation per se, and would like to critique the current understanding of the role of the threefold model of Indian history in the fostering of communal identities. Without denying the validity of the portrayal argument, Mill’s threefold periodisation is considered crucial to the historical knowledge it generates, thence impacting society and politics.[1] Mill’s scheme is stated to have continued in an unbroken chain through imperialist histories, and remained the framework in which nationalist scholars wrote theirs. Somewhere along the line, there occurred a shift to a new terminology of Ancient-Medieval-Modern periods from Hindu-Muslim-British ones, but this was a change in name alone. There was thus a linear continuity from the scheme that Mill gave us in the early nineteenth century to fairly recent times.

The many problems with this periodisation were finally identified by a new generation of historians led by D. D. Kosambi and R. S. Sharma, and a new and more satisfactory periodisation was worked out, one which placed the onset of the medieval period well before the ‘Muslim period’, taking the wind out of communalist sails. Not surprisingly, a typical way of teaching divided histories remains; teaching it according to the outmoded periodisation of Indian history, one that was invented to feed the colonialist agenda and to which our nationalist historians had fallen unsuspecting prey. It is our submission that this version of the historiography of the periodisation is oversimplified, being too uncritical and uninformed.

Who Has Been Falsifying History: the Secularist or the Communalist?

In post-Independence India, the publication of the tract Communalism and the Writing of Indian History in the year 1969 is a major marker in the professional combating of communalist histories in the public sphere (see Thapar et al. 1969). It became a live issue again, though briefly, in the post-Emergency years. It is especially since the late 1980s that an increasingly large number of professional historians have come out in opposition to the communalist reconstructions. The line of departure for much of the recent writings on the issue has inevitably been the Ramjanmabhoomi–Babri Masjid controversy leading up to its demolition on 6 December 1992 and persisting in its aftermath, as well as the attempt of the government led by Bharatiya Janata Party to introduce substandard history textbooks with a crude pro-Hindutva and anti-Muslim bias.

It is natural that the focus of these debates should have been the ideological pronouncements of the activists, publicists, propagandists, and politicians, to which the views of the professional historians, political scientists and others were opposed. Early on, historians from Jawaharlal Nehru University wrote a powerful tract on the political abuse of history. That these communalist views derived sanction and nourishment from professional historians, political scientists and others was regularly missed in the process, even denied sometimes. Thus in the Introduction to an important collection of readings on history and temple desecration in medieval India, a distinction is drawn between the historical research of ‘professional historians’ and the communalist pulp history present in ‘history textbooks, popular literature and the media’ and that is routinely absorbed by ‘school and college teachers, students and other interested readers’ (Kumar 2008: 1–11; the quotes are from p. 5 and p. 8).

In fact, the intellectual roots of communalism, especially but not only in history writing, often run deeper than is realised by the intellectuals opposing it. There was indeed a time when the wind blew the other way, when the historical Establishment argued from the other side of the divide and the leading lights of the profession insisted that sober historical truth not be sacrificed for the perceived political necessities of secularism (or for the political gains of the ruling Congress Party represented by Gandhi and Nehru). We illustrate this with the example of R. C. Majumdar, the most eloquent representative of this viewpoint.

In the very year 1969, even as the three young historians were arguing about how communalism was vitiating the writing of Indian history, senior scholar K. M. Munshi unequivocally condemned what he termed ‘the persistent demand for the rewriting of history to foster communal unity’, in the Foreword to the concluding volume of the History and Culture of the Indian People (HCIP).

Another problem that we have to consider is the persistent demand for the rewriting of history to foster communal unity. To my mind, nothing can be a greater mistake. History, in order to generate faith in it, must be written as the available records testify, without any effort to exaggerate or minimise the actual facts. Suppression and distortion of evidence, leading to false conclusions about the past, is hardly the way to improve the present situation or build up a better future (Munshi 1969: viii).

Munshi was only endorsing the campaign that R. C. Majumdar had embarked on quite some time ago, against the secularist falsifications of history. In the Prefaces to his three-volume History of the Freedom Movement in India, Majumdar argued how the real history of India was being negated by political considerations:

It is an ominous sign of the time that Indian history is being viewed in official circles in the perspective of recent politics. The official history of the freedom movement starts with the premises that India lost independence only in the eighteenth century and had thus an experience of subjection to a foreign power for only two centuries. Real history, on the other hand, teaches us that the major part of India lost independence about five centuries before, and merely changed masters in the eighteenth century. How this fact has materially affected the course of the freedom movement in India has been shown in Book I, Chapter III (1962: xi).

This re-writing of history for political ends dated back, he noted later in the same work, to ‘the end of the 19th century, when the political leaders of India started the slogan of Hindu-Muslim bhai bhai (brothers) and sought to rewrite the history of their country to suit their own political views’ (ibid.: 52). Sir Syed Ahmad and M. A. Jinnah were more faithful to history and contemporary reality than persons like Gandhi and Nehru ‘when they refused to recognise the fundamental differences between the Hindus and Muslims which made them two distinct religious, social and political units’ (ibid.: xix). The two-nation theory, he argued, is actually ‘indispensable’ for ‘a rational explanation of the birth of Pakistan’ (ibid.: xx). And:

   It would be a mistake to suppose that the Hindu-Muslim cleavage was a creation of the British or even of the Aligarh Movement. The cleavage was there from the very beginning, as mentioned above; the British policy merely exploited it for the safety of the British rule, and the Aligarh Movement widened it in order to serve the Muslim interests (ibid.: 492–3).

The proof for the last statement is then assembled in all the evidence for communal conflicts that preceded or were unconnected with any British design or machinations of the Aligarh movement (ibid.: 493ff). Indeed, Syed Ahmad and others may have played up the differences, but they didn’t invent them. They were the most accurate of observers: ‘Syed Ahmad was not a dupe of the Hindu political slogan of Hindu-Muslim fraternity or fusion of Hindus and Mussalmans’ (ibid.: 480).

There was indeed a pre-British ‘struggle for independence’ in India, led by the Rajputs, Marathas and Sikhs. Majumdar however began his own account of the freedom movement in India, for the reason that ‘the struggle for independence during Muslim rule by the Rajputs, Marathas and Sikhs, among others, is now treated as a part of the general history of India’ (ibid.: xi).

The formation of Bangladesh failed to dent Majumdar’s convictions in any way (although its fatal implications for his theories were underlined in the 1969 Foreword by Munshi). Majumdar continued with his campaign against the secularist falsifications of history subserving political masters and flourishing under what he termed ‘official favour’. In 1974, in his Preface to the seventh volume of the HCIP on the Mughal period, Majumdar dwelt almost exclusively (with a bit of attenuation at the end) on the persistent attempts by politicians and even professional historians to falsify the real history of Muslim rule in India. His ‘disclosures’ about the real nature of Hindu-Muslim relations during Muslim rule did not go down well with these people, whose criticisms of his work was therefore alleged to be motivated by extra-academic considerations:

Such disclosures may not be liked by the high officials and a section of the politicians, but it is the solemn duty of the historian to state the truth, however unpleasant or discreditable it might be to any particular class or community. Unfortunately, political expediency in India during this century has sought to destroy this true historic spirit This alone can explain the concealed, and mostly unsuccessful, attempt to disparage the statements about the Hindu-Muslim relations made in Volume V (pp. 497–502) and Vol. VI (pp. 615–636), though these were based mainly on Muslim chronicles and accounts of a Muslim traveller, supported by contemporary Indian literature (Majumdar 1974: xi–xii).

It is very sad that the spirit of perverting history to suit political views is no longer confined to politicians, but has definitely spread even among professional historians (ibid.: xii).

Majumdar anticipated similar politically-motivated attacks on his fully documented treatment of the historical truth of Hindu-Muslim relations in the current volume:

In the present volume, reference has been made in some detail to the Muslim bigotry in general and the persecution of the Hindus by Aurangzeb in particular (pp. 233–6, 305–06). Although the statements are based on unimpeachable authority, there is hardly any doubt that they will be condemned not only by a small class of historians enjoying official favour, but also by a section of Indians who are quite large in number and occupy high position in politics and society (ibid.).

For us it is important to take note of Majumdar’s insistence that he was pointing it out all in the name of the profession, in his search and fight for historical truths. He was simply doing, he said, what all the illustrious historians, backed by celebrities such as Dr Rajendra Prasad, then President of India, before him had been prescribing as the sacred duty of the worker in the field. He produced quotations from Jadunath Sarkar, Leopold von Ranke and others to repeatedly drive home his point (see, for example, ibid.: xii–xiv).

Since Majumdar was not the first and the only one of his kind, there is a need to probe beneath the surface of popular histories in order to arrive at a proper diagnosis of the problem, and tell a fuller story of the communalist virus in the historical profession.

Rethinking the History of Periodization[2]

We first document the common belief among practising historians—and transmitted to textbooks thence—that James Mill’s division in History of British India of the subcontinent’s past into Hindu, Muslim and British periods continued to be employed by successive generations of historians in the garb of Ancient, Medieval and Modern periods:

His [Mill’s] division of Indian history into three periods—the Hindu, the Muslim, and the British—became the accepted periodization of Indian history and has remained so, with marginal modification, to the present day (Thapar 1968: 321).

The periodisation of Ancient, Medieval, and Modern, which is generally accepted by most historians of India and by most universities teaching Indian history, is basically the same as that of Mill, since the Ancient period usually ends with the establishment of Muslim dynasties and the Medieval period with the acquisition of political power by the East India Company (ibid.: 321n6, explaining the ‘marginal modification’ of the preceding quote).