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Communal Identities in the Historiography of Early India: A Preliminary Note - Vishwamohan Jha


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).

This idea about the linear continuity of the periodisation right up the mid-twentieth century is nicely brought home in the following statement from a book we all have been brought up on, Romila Thapar’s A History of India): ‘The Hindu-Muslim-British periodisation of Indian history is followed in most standard textbooks such as that of [Vincent] Smith . . . or the more frequently used work of R. C. Majumdar, H. C. Raychaudhuri, and K. K. Datta, An Advanced History of India’ (Thapar 1966: 20–1, 354). The task of redefining the periods of Indian history is stated there to have been under way, but was still not established enough in 1966 to be used in a general work like hers.

By way of summing up a prevalent consensus, this periodisation is further stated (in the year 2002) to have been revised only in ‘recent years’ with the creation of a new category of ‘early medieval India’:

In recent years this tripartite division has been modified to suit Indian history. The first period is described as Early Historical and terminates in about the eighth century AD. Subsequent to this is the Early Medieval—from the eighth century to the thirteenth century. The Medieval begins with Turkish or the Sultanates and ends with the decline of the Mughals (Thapar 2002: 30).

In fact, far from being but another name for the Muslim period, or a mindless application of the periodisation from European history,[3] the concept of medieval India was worked out and applied along an altogether different trajectory. Mill’s division was apparently not found satisfactory enough by historians like Vincent Smith, who dated the beginning of the early medieval period from about the mid-seventh century AD, after the death of Harsha, in his Early History of India (1904). He, as we shall presently see, had his own reason for the specific choice of the date, but does not explain it in this first edition of the work.

Far from being a stunning new idea, including the last phase of pre-Muslim India in the medieval period of Indian history had been a fairly well-known practice for some time: when The Early History of India was published, two recent examples were Alexander Cunningham’s Coins of Mediaeval India from the Seventh Century down to the Muhammadan Conquests (1894), and Nundo Lal Dey’s The Geographical Dictionary of Ancient and Mediaeval India (1899).

For reasons we have not able to ascertain, it is in the third edition of his work that Smith felt it necessary to offer an explanation of what he meant by this periodisation:

Who were these Rajputs—Parihārs, Pawārs, Chandels, and the rest—and why do they and their affairs make such a confused stir during the centuries intervening between the death of Harsha and the Muhammadan conquest? The dominance of the Rajput clans is at first sight the conspicuous fact differentiating the mediaeval from the ancient period in the history of Northern India, and the mind craves for an explanation (smith 1914: 407).

The real difference between the ancient and the mediaeval periods is that the living tradition concerning the former has been broken, while that concerning the latter survives. The Mauryas and the Guptas belong to a dead and buried past, remembered only through books, inscriptions, and coins, whereas the clans whose ruling families came into notice during the mediaeval period are still very much alive, and in many cases form numerous and influential sections of the existing population (ibid.: 408).

Clearly, then, the concept of the medieval in Indian history was a matter neither of Hindu-Muslim divide nor of decline, but one of the origins and dominance of the Rajputs.

Other ideas on the beginning of the medieval period in the pre-Muslim period followed. Hemchandra Raychaudhuri, for example, was placing the reign of Harsha in the medieval period, and, appropriately enough, terminating his Political History of Ancient India with the Guptas. As he explained in the Preface to its first edition:

The author’s aim has been to present materials for an authentic chronological history of ancient India, including the neglected post-Bhārata period, but excluding the Epoch of the Kanauj Empires which properly falls within the domain of the historian of Medieval India (Raychaudhuri 1923: vii).

Then we have the two-volume Dynastic History of Northern India (Early Medieval Period) by H. C. Ray, based on his doctoral thesis at the University of London under the supervision of L. D. Barnett. There, Ray suggests a modification to Smith’s scheme, arguing that the medieval should begin not with the post-Harsha but with the post-Gūrjara-Pratīhāra period (Ray 1931: xxxivff).

Periodisation was thus an open and lively issue among the historians of early India, being thought up in a variety of ways, its beginnings being placed mostly in the pre-Sultanate period. The influence of Smith’s Early History of India, however, seems to have been the greatest, going by the adoption of its periodisation in a number of outstanding works, where Smith’s early medieval India could also be called the ‘Rajput period’. We thus have U. N. Ghoshal’s Contributions to the Hindu Revenue System (1929), the fourth and fifth chapters of which are called ‘the Epoch of Harṣavardhana’ and ‘the Early Mediaeval (Rajput) period’ respectively, and A. L. Basham’s The Wonder that was India (1954), where the post-Harsha period is called the Middle Ages (Basham 1954: 69ff).

So when Ancient India came to be equated with ‘Hindu’, and Medieval India with ‘Muslim’, periods in books such as An Advanced History of India by R. C. Majumdar, Raychaudhuri and K. K. Datta, it was no linear continuity of Mill’s periodisation but a conscious adoption of a viewpoint in negation of all these alternative visions of medieval India being advocated by the most eminent professional historians of the time. It is also clear that in this case that the choice was Majumdar’s. As already discussed, Raychaudhuri had a very different view of what constitutes medieval India; Datta too had his own views about modern Indian history beginning with the Mughals, as seen in the two-volume Modern Indian History he co-authored with Subimal Chandra Sarkar (Sarkar and Datta 1942: Chapter 1).

Yet, even the Advanced History did not succeed in completely dislodging the medieval from its ‘Ancient India’. In a chapter on post-Gupta India by Raychaudhuri, we have a map under the heading ‘Early Mediaeval India’, listed as such in the Table of Contents, and a reference to ‘malla-kara and turushka-daṇḍa of mediaeval epigraphs’ (Majumdar et al. 1953: xiii, 176–7, 194–5).[4] And in the chapter on ‘Monuments of Ancient India’, Majumdar himself places the art history of the post-Gupta period under the heading ‘The Medieval Period (A.D. 600–1200)’, making frequent references to ‘medieval sculptures’, ‘medieval art’ and ‘medieval painting’ (ibid.: 244ff).[5] The medieval had come to stay in ‘Hindu’ India, irrevocably.

In Conclusion

Space and time do not permit further elaboration of the problems in all their complexities, but it should be clear that the issues at hand are rather less straightforward than we are usually given to believe. All things considered, I would like to insist here—hoping to demonstrate it sometime later—that it has been, since Mill, more than anything else a tale of the scientific pursuit of truth. The story unfortunately does have a communalist tangle—murkier, nastier, and more home-grown than we allow for. What is dismissed by the knowledgeable as pulp history (of whichever variety—communalist or secularist-leftist) will, on scrutiny, turn out, in substantial measure, to be offshoots of, i.e. rooted in, professional research of one variety or another. The issues at stake therefore need to be identified and struck at the roots. In the end, ours has also been, unavoidably if regrettably, a sad commentary on the state of historiographical studies.

References Cited

Basham, A. L. 1954. The Wonder that was India: A Survey of the Culture of the Indian Sub-Continent before the Coming of the Muslims. Grove Press, Inc.: New York.

Chandra, Bipan 1984. Communalism in Modern India. Vani Educational Books: New Delhi.

Chandra, Sudhir 1973. ‘History and Nationalism: A Personal Response to the Indian Situation’, Economic and Political Weekly, 8(36) (8 September): 1623–25.

Jha, D.N. 2009[1998]. Ancient India: An Historical Outline. Manohar: New Delhi.

Kumar, Sunil 2008. Demolishing Myths or Mosques and Temples?: Readings on History and Temple Desecration in Medieval India. Three Essays Collective: New Delhi.

Majumdar, R. C. 1962: History of the Freedom Movement in India, Volume 1. Firma K. L. Mukhopadhyay: Calcutta.

——. 1974: ‘Preface’ in R. C. Majumdar, J. N. Chaudhuri and S. Chaudhuri (eds), History and Culture of the Indian People, Volume VII: The Mughul Empire. Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan: Bombay, pp. xi–xviii.

——, H. C. Raychaudhuri and Kalikinkar Datta. 1953[1950]. An Advanced History of India (second revised edn). London: Macmillan and Co.

Munshi, K. M. 1969. ‘Foreword’ in R. C. Majumdar and A. K. Majumdar (eds), History and Culture of the Indian People, Volume XI: Struggle for Freedom. Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan: Bombay, pp. vii–ix.

Ray, H. C. 1973[1931]. Dynastic History of Northern India (Early Medieval Period), Volume I. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Pvt. Ltd.

Raychaudhuri, H. C. 1923. Political History of Ancient India: From the Accession of Parikshit to the Extinction of the Gupta Dynasty. Calcutta: University of Calcutta.

Sarkar, S. C. and K. K. Datta 1942. Modern Indian History (from 1526), Volume I (abridged and revised edn). Allahabad: The Indian Press.

Smith, Vincent A. 1914. The Early History of India (third revised and enlarged edn). Oxford: The Clarendon Press.

Thapar, Romila 1966. A History of India, Volume I. New Delhi: Penguin Books.

            ——. 1968. ‘Interpretations of Ancient Indian History’, History and Theory, 7(3): 318–35. Reprinted in Ancient Indian Social History.

            ——. 2002. The Penguin History of Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300. London: Penguin Books.

            ——. 2005. ‘Decolonising the Past: Historical Writing in the Time of Sachin—and Beyond’, Economic and Political Weekly, (2 April): 1442–8.

—— Harbans Mukhia and Bipan Chandra. 1969. Communalism and the Writing of Indian History. New Delhi: People’s Publishing House.

[1] For example: ‘[A]a periodisation that was to have consequences not only for the writing of history but a major political fallout effect in the 20th century.’—Thapar (2005: 1443).

[2] This section draws in large measure upon my unpublished paper ‘Rethinking Periodisation and Some Related Issues in Indian History’ (Inaugural Lecture at a UGC National Seminar, ‘Challenges in Writing on Ancient India and Emerging New Trends and Dimensions’, 14–15 February 2012, Department of Ancient History and Archaeology, D.A.V. College, Kanpur).

[3] ‘The terms Ancient, Medieval and Modern were taken from European history and applied to the existing tripartite division of Indian history. European history made a distinction between Antiquity/Ancient referring to the Greco-Roman civilization, and medieval, which was essentially the period of Christian Europe. Both Ancient and Medieval had specific connotations in European history, which were not relevant to Indian history.’—Thapar (2002: 30).

[4] Majumdar, Raychaudhuri, Datta 1953: xiii, 176-177, 194-195.

[5] Ibid.: 244 ff.


Dr Vishwamohan Jha specialises in Indian history. He has prepared textbook material for the School of Open Learning, Delhi University, as well as Indira Gandhi National Open University. 

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