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Why is History Crucial to Politics? - Romila Thapar


This lecture was delivered as part of the 6th annual History for Peace conference titled 'The Idea of Democracy' which was hosted in Kolkata through August 4, 5, and 6, 2022.

When we speak of democracy in the India of today, we need not refer to the Greek city-states or Europe during the Enlightenment. We have to refer to the context in which we live. Democracy in our times arrived with the nation-state. The two are, in many ways, interdependent. A foundational feature is essential to both—namely, the free citizen with rights to life and livelihood guaranteed by the state, and also the inclusion of every such citizen as equal in status. These features derive their legitimacy from the historical moment at which they became essential to democracy. In early periods of human society, there was inequality among people based on social and economic diversities—such as hierarchies within a clan, slavery, serfdom, the caste society of varnas, jatis, and avarnas, and so on. Barring the chief or the king, everyone was a subject of the kingdom and lacked rights. Under colonialism, everyone was a subject of the British crown. It was only when we ceased being a colony that we became a nation-state, and that everyone became a free citizen and had equal rights, as embedded in the constitution, as well as a national identity. This was a historical process. This process is now being denied by an alternative history that gives a different meaning to the nation and to citizenship of the nation. It is their history—that of Hindutva—and not our history—that of the professional historian.

Let me explain this.

When India was colonized by the British and became a colony of theirs, colonial scholars searched for histories of pre-modern India by Indians. They searched for texts similar to ancient Greek histories, but could not find them. They, therefore, decided to construct the history of India from scratch and from their own needs and perspective. Their investigation of sources was most impressive. The Brahmi script was deciphered and this opened up the inscriptions as historical data. Philology assisted the study of language and when applied to the Vedic texts extended their meaning. Excavations revealed new civilizations. Discovering the evidence was one kind of activity, and had much to be applauded. However, a distinction has to be made between methods of reading what is written and formulating the data into history. The latter process required a different set of questions that challenged colonial prejudices often.

Nineteenth century colonial scholars or Indologists decided that the clue to understanding India lay in reconstructing its racial and religious identities. Their reading of history, therefore, was imprinted by applying race theories and religions to the Indian past. Two theories were applied to Indian history. These are more familiar to us as the theory of the Aryan race, and the two-nation theory—both foundational to the colonial construction of Indian history. The assumption in both theories is that the primacy and superiority of one particular section of society are legitimate and should be understood as foundational to Indian society. The argument goes that the Aryans were a superior race and all Hindus are descended from the Aryans, therefore are superior. In the two-nation theory, the Hindus form the majority and have primacy therefore they are a superior category of citizens. Because they were victimized by the Muslims in pre-colonial times, they can now legitimately assert their superiority. Both theories contradict the idea that democracy and secularism are qualifiers of the nation-state.

These two colonial theories, widely accepted even by the emerging Indian middle-class, were not questioned until the mid-twentieth century when professional historians began to examine them. The two theories were debated at length and discarded mainly as untenable. Both have now been revived as the bedrock of the Hindutva version of Indian history. Similar to many ultra-nationalist movements, Hindutva uses history to legitimize the conversion of India into a Hindu Rashtra/Hindu state. Hindutva claims that its version is the correct indigenous Indian history and that what we, professional historians, write and teach, is a Western imposition. Ironically, however, the foundations of the Hindutva version are the very same colonial theories that professional historians have questioned. There is nothing indigenous about them. What has emerged from the research of professional historians is a more credible and accurate view of the past. The official effort now, in textbooks and the curriculum at all levels as well as the media, is to establish the Hindutva version as the correct history and to dismiss the history of professional historians by calling it distorted. The curriculum is being changed and placed under government control which makes it easier to have a uniformly dictated syllabus across the country. Universities will be discouraged from teaching the history written by academic historians. That this flaunts the basic principle of education, namely the freedom to debate and argue the choice of explanations, is not a concern anymore.

The media—social and public—is encouraged to popularize the Hindutva view. A huge number of trolls are employed to abuse, in the most disgusting terms, those historians whose history disagrees with the Hindutva version. To clarify what this means I shall juxtapose the Hindutva version with the readings of professional historians. This should explain why we, professional historians, are opposed to the Hindutva version. First, is the theory of the Aryan race. Its roots lie in the suggestion of William Jones that the Sanskrit, Greek and Persian languages could have initially been connected. This led to the idea of an Indo-European ancestry for Indo-Aryan, Iranian-Aryan and some ancient European languages. Comparative studies of the Vedas, the Avesta and some ancient Greek texts strengthened this theory. This was reinforced by the later scholarship of the nineteenth century, pre-eminently Max Mueller’s work on the Vedic texts. It was argued that the Aryan speakers originated in Central Asia from where they migrated in small groups, to Iran and north India and to Europe. In India, this Aryan culture was viewed as foundational to Hinduism. This led Hindus to claim Aryan descent and superior status. Nineteenth-century theories of race placed Aryans high in the racial hierarchy.

Colonial scholarship in India was confronted with unfamiliar cultures and religious ideas. Priority was given to brahminical texts, treated as the social norms observed by the entire society, even if this data referred almost entirely to upper-caste elite groups. Efforts to separate linguistic and racial identities were unsuccessful. Yet Aryan is a language identity and not a racial one. It is differentiated as Indo-Aryan and Iranian-Aryan, etc. in our times. In the nineteenth century, however, it subsumed race, and references were made to ‘the Aryan race’. Two prominent socio-religious reform movements in the nineteenth century adopted this colonial theory. The Theosophical Society established in Madras/Chennai in 1875 by Col. Olcott made Aryanism foundational to the history of Hinduism. However, Olcott also insisted that Aryans were indigenous to India, and carried Aryanism to other peoples in the west. This has been picked up by Hindutva.

The Theosophical Society had a close relationship for a brief while with the Arya Samaj focusing on the religion and culture of the Aryans. It propagated going back to the pure society of the original Aryas and pristine Hinduism. The belief system was based on Vedic teaching and practice, worship was in the form of large-scale sacrificial rituals. Since icons of Vedic gods were not permitted, temples were not needed to house icons of deities until many centuries later. This construction of the origins and evolution of Hinduism and the Hindus, underlining religion and race, faced a serious problem with the discovery of the Indus civilization also known as the Harappa culture, excavated in the 1920s. The Indus civilization dating to 2700 BC preceded the Aryans by an entire millennium. It declined in the early second millennium BC, approximately the period when Aryan migrants began arriving in northern India.

The foundations of Hinduism, therefore, had now to be taken back to a pre-Aryan time, to the religion and society of the Harappans. The Aryans could no longer be the progenitors of Hindus and Hinduism since the archaeological evidence for the Harappans is earlier. Furthermore, the Indus civilization differed substantially from that described in the Vedas. The first was a long-standing urban culture, using a pictographic script for communication, whereas Aryan culture was agro-pastoral, unfamiliar with both city life and written communication. We do not know which language the Harappans spoke but scholars are suggesting that a Dravidian language is more plausible given the clues. Linguistic analyses of Vedic Sanskrit, point to its having incorporated some Dravidian elements. This is specific only to the Indo-Aryan.

It would indicate a possible interface between Aryan and Dravidian speakers. The Rigveda, the earliest Vedic text, refers to the dasas as people of the Other culture, speaking their own language but living in the vicinity. Could they have been Dravidian-speaking? References to a category of dasi-putra brahmanas or brahmanas who are the sons of dasis, and their participation in Vedic ritual and society, does suggest a far greater admixture of Aryan and non-Aryan elements in the making of what is called Aryan culture and religion. What was thought to be an unmixed Aryan culture is now proving to be not so.

Genetic evidence derived from DNA analyses of materials gathered from excavations seems to reinforce this. The data from Harappan samples points to the population being a mix of ancestral north Indian and east Iranian. Post-Harappan samples, however, do include a strain from Central Asia. The latter dates to about four thousand years ago, coinciding with the approximate date for Aryan presence in India. Despite the diversity of sources, a narrative is emerging, although this is not acceptable to the propagators of the Hindutva version.

Indian history was described as Oriental Despotism and confined to India. The analytical methods used to explain the history of Europe were not applied to sources of Indian history. Instead, Indian history remained a static and variant version of Oriental Despotism. The inapplicability of this explanation soon became obvious for a variety of reasons and Indian historians rejected it.

History is basic to the construction of nationalism. It is used to endorse and legitimize the ideology of certain kinds of nationalism. As Eric Hobsbawm writes, history is to nationalism what the poppy is to the opium addict. For secular democratic nationalism, historical analysis was largely well-reasoned and logical, although some weaknesses were not absent. But opposed to this and often entirely different and not necessarily backed by reliable evidence was the history constructed by Islamic and Hindu religious nationalism, both basing themselves on the colonial two-nation theory. Islamic religious nationalism succeeded in establishing the Islamic state of Pakistan. Hindu religious nationalism is in the throes of establishing its counterpart, the Hindu Rashtra—a Hindu state.

However, history poses contradictions to the Hindutva version. The Hindu Rashtra, argues that because Hindus are the majority, this gives priority to the Hindu citizen. But this turn to Hindutva can be problematic. How is the Hindu to be defined? This identity has not been essential in past times when identity was not that of Hindu but was defined by caste and sect. Hinduism is not a unitary monolithic religion with a catechism and a canon. Those who constructed the concept of what they called Hindutva/Hinduness, such as Savarkar and Golwalkar, had in mind the political role of Hindu organizations such as the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS—the Rashtra Svayamsevak Sangh. Hindutva, therefore, defines the Hindu as, him whose ancestors were from within the boundaries of India, pitribhumi, and whose religion originated in this area—punyabhumi. These criteria are doubtful since there were no defined boundaries of India until colonial times. It is a definition based on the demarcation of territory. But as every historian knows, territorial demarcations changed often radically, in every century.

But here history presents other problems. If Hinduism is taken back to its historical origins, then its roots are in the Harappan religion and not the Aryan. Hence the need for Hindutva to insist—as it does now—that the Harappans too were Aryans, but for this, there is no evidence. The Aryans cannot be indigenous if they migrated from Central Asia. The genetic data suggest that people from Central Asia, were present in India for the first time, approximately four thousand years ago when the Harappa Culture was in decline. They lived in the proximity of and inter-mixed with, people who were by definition non-Aryans, the dasas. The richness of the Vedic culture was enhanced through such intermingling. Migrations and cultural mixtures happen frequently in history. It is for historians to track the outcome of these. New sources of evidence and fresh methods of analysis have resulted in more viable constructions, discarding older theories.

Let me turn now to the second basic reading of Indian history held by the Hindutva version, namely, the two-nation theory. A commonly repeated view is that in the second millennium AD, when the rulers were largely Muslim, there was continuous hostility between the Hindus and Muslims and that the Muslims victimized Hindus. It is said to be a period of a thousand years of slavery for the Hindus. This theory is lifted from colonial writings of the ninetieth century and draws from the histories of India by James Mill, Eliot, Dawson and the like. The more recent destruction of the Babri Masjid was sought to be justified based on two reasons: firstly, it was claimed that it replaced the earlier temple at the site, of which there is little evidence despite extensive excavation. Secondly, the destruction of the mosque was to avenge the raid of Mahmud of Ghazni on the Somantha temple, an event that happened a thousand years earlier.

Colonial historians propagated Mill’s view. Hindu-Muslim antagonism became the standard historical explanation for events of this period until it was challenged by professional historians in recent decades. The secular nationalists argued for what they called a ‘composite culture’, namely, that the culture which evolved in these times was one not invariably of antagonism but more often of the intertwining of Hindu and Muslim cultures. However, the religious nationalists—Hindu and Muslim—emphasized hostility and conflict to justify the creation of two separate nations. The theory of the victimization of the Hindu is being proclaimed loud and clear by Hindu nationalism, and indeed some of their ardent supporters are calling for annihilating the Muslims of India. The justification for this is not history but fantasy. The Muslim community in present times is then converted into the necessary scapegoat, conveniently providing the political necessity for an enemy within society. Every derelict temple is said to be in that condition because of a physical attack by Muslims. Sanskrit sources mention such destruction in a few cases but also refer to other reasons for the poor condition of a temple. Among them is decline due to neglect and weathering over time, as is recorded with reference to the Somanatha temple in a major Jaina text. Such references have been systematically ignored.

Temples were particularly vulnerable, as had been the case with earlier Buddhist chaityas and viharas. Successful religious organizations acquired immense wealth as so many did, patronized by the royalty and the rich. Temples that invested in trade on a large scale, as quite a few did, had well-stocked treasuries. If temples were attacked by Muslims only out of hostility to the Hindu religion, then why were temples also being attacked by Hindu rulers, as some were? The Rajatarangini, the history of Kashmir written by the brahmana historian, Kalhana, in the twelfth century, describes the severe fiscal crisis faced by Kashmir in the tenth-eleventh centuries AD, in pre-Islamic times. Rulers looted temples, the worst of them being maharaja Harshadeva ruling in the eleventh century. He appointed a special officer to supervise the attacks on temples with the ironic but appropriate designation of devotapattana-nayaka—the officer for the overthrowing of the gods. Was he a role model for later rulers?

Victimisation as a social and political activity is not unheard of, on and off, in most complex societies of past times. In India, continuous victimisation by upper castes of the lowest ones and outcastes is well-established. Those that were to be segregated were the more amorphous avarna, groups outside or without the status of varna/caste. They had to live in cordoned-off areas and their proximity to people and places was controlled. Many were regarded as impure and untouchable—asprishya, and what could be more demeaning in any human relationship. Employment was curtailed mostly to degrading manual labour. The segregation and social distancing of avarna categories is a requirement of social behaviour in the legalistic codes of caste, the Dharmashastras.

Through the last two thousand years this has been the major form of victimisation in Indian society and is recorded as such. Irrespective of whether Hindus or Muslims were ruling, the suppression of avarna groups did not change. Nor could colonial laws nullify this practice. Some of these avarna groups converted to Islam and Christianity, but although their religion changed their caste status remained the same. Hence the large population of the Muslim pasmandas, Christian churas, Sikh mazhabis, etc. It is for similar reasons that some caste Hindus distanced themselves from the Muslims socially, regarding the latter as impure and therefore inferior. Commensality was thought to be contaminating. Among the elite however, there was much socializing as there also was among craftsmen, artisans, labourers and cultivators. If the Muslim referred to the non-believer as the kafir, and looked down on him, Sanskrit texts of the sixteenth century refer to the Muslim, the Buddhist, the Jaina and Charvaka—all of them—as non-believers, nastikas and as mleccha/outcastes, and looked down on them. One wonders who was excluding whom.

Yet, during the years of the powerful Muslim presence in India prior to colonial rule, we find socially respected Hindus and Muslims both participating jointly in a range of activities. Employment of each other was not lacking. Religious beliefs and practices crossed boundaries quite normally. Hindu authors do not project themselves as victimised Hindus. We need to write a nuanced history of activities of that time, explaining which were a nuanced intermixing and which were confrontational, and what were the reasons. Societies never have uniform attitudes toward every activity.

Since identity is an important component of nationalism and democracy, both of which require the equal status of all identities, it is worth examining whether the two-nation theory has any validity. The first Muslims to arrive in India were the Arabs. There was an invasion of Sind in the eighth century but that is of less consequence. The effective presence of the Arabs was as traders all along the west coast of India from Gujarat to Kerala. They came from across the Arabian Sea and East Africa and settled in the commercial centres, continuing what had been a lucrative maritime trade, going back to pre-Islamic centuries. This was the Indian-eastern Mediterranean trade, with Tamil texts referring to Yavanas. Logically, therefore, Sanskrit texts refer to the Arabs as Yavanas—the people from the west, and sometimes as Tajiks, but seldom as Muslims. The Rashtrakuta rulers employed some Arabs in their administration. Gradually many new trading communities evolved from the interacting cultures of Indian and Arab traders. New religious sects of mixed religion also emerged such as the Bohras, Khojas, Navayathas and Mapillas. These became independent religious sects because they were and are independent of both Hindu and Muslim orthodoxy.

Central Asian Turks converted to Islam in the early second millennium AD. They followed the much-trodden routes of earlier migrants and invaders into north India. Their forbears were the Shakas, Kushanas, Hunas, and Afghans. They are referred to in Sanskrit sources mainly as Turushkas/Turks, not as Muslims. They had multiple interests when they settled in India. Their pattern of integration into Indian life was a little different from that of the Yavanas.

The incoming Central Asian Muslims and local Hindus interacted at various levels. Hindu craftsmen built the early mosques in coastal Gujarat, with recognizable features of Hindu temple architecture. More irrefutable evidence of this is the inscriptions embedded inside the walls of the Qutab Minar in Delhi dating to early times. It was struck by lightning so required repairs. Inscriptions of the craftsmen record this and their Hindu names as well as their evocation of their deity Vishvakarma. The administration employed a variety of masons and artisans. The inscriptions carry no mention of discrimination or ill-treatment.

At the upper end of the social scale was royalty. Here there is evidence of closer inter-mixing. The Sultans and the Mughals, not to mention lesser royalty and the aristocracy, married into local Hindu families of status. Feroz Shah Tughlaq’s mother was a Hindu. The Mughal royal family took wives from the Kachhawaha Rajputs who, despite their high caste rank, gave their daughters to Muslim rulers, who in caste terms were ranked low as mleccha. There was no such thing as love-jehad in those times.

High administrative offices, and more so in Mughal times, continued to be in the hands of Rajputs, brahmanas and kayasthas, as it had been earlier. The local elite knew how to manage the administration. Mughal administration, even if centralized, did have a place for small principalities to be ruled by local elites. The local elites were given mansabs by the Mughal administration as a way of ranking them in the new order. Rajas became feudatories. Todar Mal, Mirza Raja Man Singh and Birbal handled state finances and campaigns with great aplomb and were respected by the court. Rajput commanders led the Mughal army against Rana Pratap at the battle of Haldighati. We learn much from the writings of the brahmana Chandra Bhan, who held the highest offices in the court of Aurangzeb. They were all patrons of culture, as evident not only from the architecture but also collections of miniature paintings and manuscripts. The majority of the artists in the Mughal ateliers were Hindus. Muslim artists interestingly found better employment in the courts of Hindu rajas.

Interventions in court politics by Hindu rajas were not unusual particularly when competing royal factions were vying for succession and needed the support of important court officials. The intricate politics of the Orchha rulers and the Mughals, involving succession in both dynasties is but one example of these complexities. Historians now have to consult extensive non-Persian and non-Turkish sources as well when researching this period. They provide an insight into how these courts were viewed from a broad social range. Political complexity cannot be reduced to Muslims victimising Hindus. It involved the participation of both and many others in diverse ways.

Sufis coming from Central Asia and settling in India was another aspect of cultural interchange. Sufism was not identical to Islam. It was eclectic and absorbed elements of other religions when required. A characteristic of many Sufi sects—although not all—is this openness. This was similar to the more popular Bhakti religions. Religion was not monolithic and unitary. Each is related to a range of sects representing diverse views.

The Bhakti movements of devotional worship across the sub-continent began in south India in the mid-first millennium AD, with the compositions of the Alvars and the Nayanars. These forms of religious articulation have continued into the present times. In the bigger centres, the deities were mainly Shiva and Vishnu to which Shakta worship was added. Their texts were initially the Puranas rather than the Vedas but soon gave way to their own teachings. Each devotee chose a deity. The rituals, therefore, were often personalised. The place of worship could be anywhere and not necessarily in the temples—now richly endowed by royalty and controlled by brahmanas. The Bhakti sants were frequently not brahmanas as some were from the lower castes. Their poems, prayers and texts were composed in the popular regional languages—Tamil, Hindi, Marathi, Bengali, Panjabi and the like. It was accessible to the larger population, even those uneducated and far from wealthy. The Bhakti and Sufi religions were often more democratic than the formally practised Hinduism and Islam, and had substantial followings. For their devotees, the act of worship was devotion to deity. One segment among them carried a strong message of worship being equally accessible to all, quite remarkable in a world of social inequality. The Muslim elite imitating the Hindu upper castes segregated the Muslims of lower castes —the pasmandas. Kabir, the bhakti preacher, insisted that Allah and Rama were equally available to everyone. He did not have to assert that he was born a Muslim weaver and became a devotee of Ramanand. His message drew from both and more. Social equality was also emphasized in the teachings of Dadu and Ravidas.

The religion of one’s birth did not prevent devotion to any deity. Muslims from various social backgrounds also became Krishna-bhakts, dedicating compositions to the Krishna incarnation of Vishnu. Ras Khan came from a land-owning family. As a prominent devotee, his compositions are still sung in Hindustani classical music. Another popular devotee was Bulleh Shah who represents a long tradition in the Punjab of using idioms from both Hindu and Muslim sources. That the universally used word for God in Panjabi is rabb, which is the Arabic for God, tells us much about religion in this region.

I have given you just a hint of what is available in a fraction of the historical sources. These need to be explored far more fully. Do these suggest that the Hindus were victimised? The Hindu elite was in close proximity to the rulers who were Muslim. At another social level, trading communities had free reign and Hindu traders in particular were highly successful. The working population would doubtless have had a tough life, now as earlier. But Hindu craftsmen had employment. Bhakti literature does not lament Hindus being victimised by Muslims.

We have, therefore, two different versions of how the past is represented today: the Hindutva version based on a largely imagined past with virtually no evidence to support it, and the alternate one of the professional historians, drawing on a range of sources, carefully evaluated, and generalising only from the logic of the analyses. The reason for worrying about the Hindutva version is that it is now no longer the plaything of the media, but is being made the official version of Indian history, taught in the new curriculum at every level of education. School textbooks are based on its premises as are university curricula. In their political manifestation, such historical theories are used for categorising Indians into the privileged Indian citizens of the majority religion and the underprivileged of the religions of the minority communities.

I would like to conclude with a question. Why is history crucial to democracy? The historical turn from Indology and Orientalism to the social sciences and interdisciplinary research will be annulled in the new curriculum being introduced. The turn to interdisciplinary research was in part impelled by the democratic perspective on society that changed the relations between the individual and the state. The values propagated by colonial history and its successors draw on subjecthood and the absence of freedom to question the construction of the past in any essential way. History becomes a catechism where the questions and answers are given by authority and are memorised unquestioningly by the subject person. The democratic system demanding the change to citizenship is built on freedom of thought and rights emanating from social equality. In this system, history becomes an investigation of what was, how and why it underwent a change, and what it portended.

Democracy is not a static condition. It remains at the core of historical contexts that may change, and more so where the representation and freedom of thought of a society, of a nation, is available to all. Among the various systems, the one that gives maximum space to democracy is when kingdoms and colonies come to an end and are replaced by nation-states. These are characterized by an individual no longer being a subject, but having the rights of a free citizen. This is the foundation of democracy. Every citizen must know how, in the past, this status of the autonomous citizen with rights has come to them, and equally important is how the citizen has to protect and defend these rights. We cannot allow history to be mangled. Its role in the demand for democracy is crucial.

Romila Thapar is a pre-eminent Indian historian specialising in the field of ancient India. She is a Professor of Ancient History, Emerita, at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.


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