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Writing Indian History
Dr. Gautam Sen
Date: January-February 2002


The current dispute over Indian history and the behaviour of some of its protagonists is little short of hilarious. The sheer arrogance of the implied claim of India’s Stalinist historians to some absolute moral and legal title over historical truth is hard to credit. The underlying contention that the raison d’être of historical writing has been accepted universally as the examination of variegated class struggles is breathtaking in its impudence, since nothing could be further from the truth.


As the writer V. S. Naipaul has pointed out, it constitutes an arbitrary espousal of some “higher truth” (i.e. the transcendent objective primacy of class struggles over all other forms of ascription) that is parochial, to say the least, if not downright perverse. The manner in which this claim is being put forward also borders on something akin to racist contempt for rival claims. The failure, in turn, of rival claimants, the alleged Hindu fascists, to argue an alternative view cogently does not make it false. Their gut feeling on some basic issues is in fact perfectly defensible, but their failure to argue coherently and scant regard for established scholarly conventions make them easy targets.


I have now thrice heard parroted virtually identical scripts by historians from Delhi University and JNU. The refrain is the incorrigible stupidity of the protagonists of Hindutva and the alleged universal abandonment of earlier historical canons by all right thinking, sane intellectuals. This supercession includes, among other things, the periodisation of Indian history as Hindu, Muslim and British. Obviously, any periodisation involves simplification because it is a form of shorthand that only captures broad contours, but that does not necessarily render it either untrue or useless. The likes of R.C. Majumdar and Jadunath Sarkar are loftily disparaged in scholarly work by innuendo and complacent resort to the latest in fashionable ontologies and methodologies. In public debate their names are dishonestly misused to dismiss a lesser breed of provincials daring to dabble in the antecedents of their forbears. This is evidently a forlorn endeavour for those who have apparently not mastered the Chicago style of footnoting, leave aside the profundities of critical theory and intricacies of deconstruction; deep thought, in other words.


Not wishing to spoil a good story the Stalinists are also apt to regale subliminally racist Western audiences. One leading Delhi historian hysterically denounced the present Prime Minister of India in a seminar at the London School of Economics as, I quote, “a closet fascist” and “Hindu fundamentalism” as anti-Semitic. The latter canard is repeated unfailingly, on the basis of evidence that is so scandalously thin that one wonders about their claims on other issues in which scholarly expertise is claimed. One might be forgiven a sneaking suspicion that the real alarm, underlying all of this hand wringing in the interests of truth and justice by these ethereal cosmopolitans, is the fear of an empowered Indian state resisting the prevailing international political and military order.

The Stalinist insistence that past invasions of India were inconsequential is novel in the extreme since such a belief about the meaning of military conquest is embraced by historians nowhere else. Yet this remarkable fantasy is now an axiom that has taken hold among a majority of American and British academic specialists working on India as well. They are also engaged in a chorus of denunciation of Hinduism and its political manifestations as a calamity only barely exceeded by Nazism. The Islamic conquest of India, by contrast, is regarded as no worse than a temporary cricket pitch invasion, followed by the resumption of normal play. The idea that military defeat and the loss of political power might be a legitimate source of grievance for the losing side is implicitly rationalised because the Hindu upper castes have no redeeming features to justify mourning their passing.


Even if one were to concede the falsity of the claim that iconoclasm by the invaders was rare and motivated primarily by material greed, as well as dismissing their own surviving accounts as unreliable, it is surely unreasonable to expect later generations to recall that past with enthusiasm. But the historians of class struggle and immemorial communal harmony require that the murder, mass slavery, looting and institutionalised rape of one’s ancestors by invaders be viewed with equanimity because, in their considered opinion and against all the available evidence, it, improbably, lacked religious sanction. This sheer perversity heaps additional insult upon injury by disgraceful efforts to prove that the victims of this historical experience were probably themselves the offspring of Aryan invaders at some point in the distant past, who presumably behaved no better. This is what India’s historians today require to be publicly funded and it is only the remoteness of ordinary citizens from this bizarre endeavour that prevents unsparing scrutiny being directed towards it.


How it was possible for greed to be a purely secular phenomenon when social life and political action were synonymous with religion in pre-modern societies, especially Islamic ones, is left to the imagination. Of course, it is much more plausible that looting, abduction, etc. were subjectively experienced as the discharge of religious duty, but this likelihood is ignored by illegitimate imputation of motivations and sentiment that are entirely modern. A passing knowledge of Islamic invasions elsewhere would dispel this unlikely invention with respect to India. Any subsequent sign of Islamic communalism, which, in fact, happens to be one of its essential and proud distinguishing features, is tidily explained, first, by British colonial chicanery and, then, the Hindu renaissance as well. One recent work damns all of the latter, from Ram Mohun Roy, to the Tagores and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, as the ultimate cause of partition.


Already a further foretaste of this fifth column epistemology can be found in the failure to come to terms with more recent events, which cannot be quite so easily dismissed, because too many witnesses survive. The genocidal suppression of East Pakistan in 1971, specifically complemented by the massacre of Dacca’s Hindu intellectuals on one fateful day, precisely because of their religious affiliation, followed by a considered policy of mass rape and murder on an unimaginable scale, is already being ignored but cannot be denied. The unspoken justification that this amnesia is needed in the interests of communal harmony must be sternly repudiated. No doubt, the erasure of Afghanistan’s Buddhist heritage and the tragic destruction of the great Bamiyan statutes will, in time, also find “scientific” and historical rationalisation. However, it is doubtful if these politically inspired Stalinist “cosmopolitans”, on the forefront of intellectual genocide against Hinduism, will dare to invent subterfuges to obscure the fate of the twin towers of New York. So much for the courage of their convictions!


(Dr. Gautam Sen, London School of Economics & Political Science,Member Indo-UK Roundtable.)


















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