Historians Versus History
Wole Soyinka, African Nobel Laureate, delivering the 20th Nehru Memorial Lecture on November 13, 1988, made an important though by no means a new observation - that the colonial histories have been written from the European viewpoint. Speaking about Indian histories, he said that “there is a big question mark on everything that the British historians have written”. He added that serious efforts are being made by historians back home “to rewrite African history.”
We do not know what this project involves and how it is faring in Africa, but in India efforts in this direction have yielded meagre results. Not that there has been a dearth of rewriters, but their talent has not been equal to their zeal.
The phrase “re-writing of history” leaves a bad taste in the mouth and it is offensive to our sense of truth. Recent instances of rewriting have not helped to improve the image of the task and they inspired little confidence. In most cases one did not know where legitimate rewriting ended and forgery began. In practical terms, it has meant that history is written to support the latest party line, or the latest dictator.
What does, therefore, the rewriting of history mean? How far can we go in that direction? Does it mean saying good-bye to all sense of truth and objectivity, or does it mean only restoring some neglected truths and perspective? Some have looked at our present through the eyes of the past, but will it be any better to look at our past through the eyes of the present, or even go further and write about our past and present-in the spirit of “socialist realism”-in terms of the future, in terms of tasks conceived and planned by our avante garde for the future of the country?
There are other related questions. Is the European history of Asia and Africa all wrong and does it need wholesale replacement? Or does it also have some valuable elements, particularly in its methodology if not in its conclusions, which should be retained and even further developed? In the Indian context, is the British history of India monolithic, all painted black by motivated historians? Or, is it also pluralistic and contains many views, some of them highly appreciative of the country’s culture, philosophy and artistic creations?
And also, looked at objectively, apart from the intentions of the writers and even in spite of their jaundiced views, have not their histories sometimes helped us to become better aware of our past and made us in some ways rediscover ourselves in the limited sense in which the words ‘past’ and ‘rediscovery’ are understood today?
To hold that all British history of India was wrong will be highly unrealistic and will have few buyers. True, many British, historians were prejudiced. But there were also others who had genuine curiosity and in spite of their pre-conceived notions, they tried to do their job faithfully in the spirit of objectivity. In the pursuit of their researches, they applied methods followed in Europe. They collected, collated and compared old manuscripts. They desciphered old, forgotten scripts and in the process discovered an important segment of our past. They developed linguistics, archaeology, carbon-dating, numismatics; they found for us ample evidence of India in Asia. They discovered for us much new data, local and international. True, many times they tried to twist this data and put fanciful constructions on it, but this new respect for facts imposed its own discipline and tended to evolve objective criteria. Because of the objective nature of the criteria, their findings did not always support their prejudices and preconceived notions. For example, their data proved that India represented an ancient culture with remarkable continuity and widespread influence and that it had a long and well-established tradition of self-rule and self-governing republics, and free institutions and free discussion.
However, while admitting these positive factors, it is also true that the British historians distorted Indian history on some most essential points. The distortion was not conscious but was unconscious; however, it was not less real and potent on that account.
The mind of British scholars was shaped by their position as rulers of a fast-expanding Empire and by its need to consolidate itself ideologically and politically. As rulers, they felt a new racial and cultural superiority and, reinforced by their religion, developed a strong conviction of their civilizing mission. Many of them also felt a great urge to bring the blessings of Christian morals and a Christian God to a benighted paganhood, as long as the attempt did not endanger the Empire.
The rulers had also more palpable political needs. The subject people should have no higher notion of their past beyond their present status, which they should also learn to accept without murmur and even with thankfulness. The British rulers had an interest in telling the Indian people that the latter had never been a nation but a conglomerate of miscellaneous people drawn from diverse sources and informed by no principle of unity; that their history had been an history of invaders and conquerors and that they had never known indigenous rule; and that, indeed, they were indifferent to self-rule and that so long as their village-life was intact, they did not bother who ruled at the Centre. All these lessons were tirelessly taught and dutifully learnt, so much so that even after the British have left, these assumptions and categories still shape our larger political thinking and historical perspective. That India is multi-racial, multi-national, multi-linguistic, multi-cultural painfully trying to acquire a principle of unity under their aegis is also the assumption of our own new leaders and elite.
These were the basic attitudes and unspoken interests that shaped the minds of the British historians, but within this framework there was room enough for individual preferences and temperamental peculiarities. Some of them could show their genuine appreciation for Hindu language, grammar, architecture, and other, cultural achievements, but this appreciation would not go beyond a certain point, nor in a direction which began to feed the people's wider national consciousness and pride in themselves as an ancient nation. In this respect too, our intellectual elite follow the lead of the British scholars. Many of them-unless they are Marxists or Macaulayists - are not without a measure of appreciation and pride for some of our old cultural creations. But this appreciation does not extend to that larger culture itself which put forth those creations, and that religion and spirit in which that culture was rooted and those people and that society which upheld that religion and that culture.
We are told that the British highlighted Hindu-Muslim differences. They certainly did. But they had no interest in telling the Indians that their forefathers shared a common religion, that some of them got converted under peculiar circumstances, that those circumstances were no longer valid, and that they should not lose their consciousness of their original and wider fold. On the other hand, the way the British wrote their history perpetuated the myth of a Muslim rule and a Muslim period which could not but accentuate Hindu-Muslim differences and promote Muslim separatism.
The main interest of the British was to write a history which justified their presence in India. They were imperial rulers and by their situation and function they felt a bond of sympathy and affinity with the rulers that had preceded them. They held India by the right of conquest; therefore, they had to recognise the legitimacy of this right in the case of the Moghuls, the Afghans and the Arabs too.
But this justification was too crude and naked for the British conscience. To assuage it, the British offered a legal and moral alibi. They held that they were legitimate successors of the Moghuls and represented continuity with India’s past. The Moghuls were presented as empire builders, those who united India and gave it law and order, peace and stability - the natural blessings of an Imperial order. And the British themselves were merely the successors of the Imperial rights of the Moghuls and upheld the Imperial authority of Delhi. Whatever elevated Moghul authority at Delhi, elevated their imperial authority too.
Facts sometimes compelled the British historians to speak of cruelties and vandalism of the Muslim rule but this did not stop them from upholding its authority. For they knew that the myth of Imperialism is one and that the glory of the Moghul rulers and the myth of their invincibility added to the glory and the myth of the British Empire itself.
Thus all these factors made the British give a new boost to the Muslim rule in India. While trying to legitimise their own rule, they also gave to their predecessor a kind of legitimacy which they never had in the eyes of the Indian people. In fact, in the larger national consciousness, the Muslim rule had as little legitimacy as the British rule had later on. Both were considered as foreign impositions and resisted as such as far as time, opportunity and the prevailing power equation allowed it.
But by the same token and for the same reason this resistance, long and stubborn, was underplayed by British historians and presented as “revolts” or “rebellions” against the legitimate Imperial authority of the Centre. They felt, and quite rightly from their viewpoint, that Indian history should have nothing to show that its people waged many battles and repulsed many invaders. Thus, in this way, India came to have a history which is the history of its invaders, whose dominion its people accepted meekly.
Even before the British came on the stage, Muslim historians had written similar histories. Those histories were mostly annals written by scribes or munshis employed by Muslim kings. The task of these annalists was to glorify Islam and their immediate patrons, a task which they performed with great zeal and rhetoric. In the performance of this task, they resorted to no moral or intellectual disguise. The glory of Islam and the extension of Darul-Islam (the Muslim equivalent of the British “Empire”) was self-justified and needed no artificial props. They spoke of the massacres of the infidels, of their forcible conversions, of their temples raced and of similar tyrannies perpetrated with great rejoice, as Sir H.M. Elliot points out.
The results were no better when the annalist employed happened to be a Hindu. Elliot again observes that from “one of that nation we might have expected to have learnt what were the feelings, hopes, faiths, fears, and yearnings, of his subject race,” but this was not to be. On the other hand, in his writing, there is “nothing to betray his religion or his nation… With him, a Hindu is an ‘infidel’, and a Muhammadan ‘one of true faith’,… With him, when Hindus are killed, ‘their souls are despatched to hell’, and when a Muhammadan suffers the same fate, he ‘drinks the cup of martyrdom’… He speaks of the ‘light of Islam shedding its refulgence on the world’.”
But what comes next intrigues Elliot even more. Even after the tyrant was no more and the falsification of history through terror was no longer necessary (Elliot quotes Tacitus : Teberii ac Neronis res ob metum falsae), he finds that there is still “not one of this slavish crew who treats the history of his native country subjectively, or presents us with the thoughts, emotions, and raptures which a long oppressed race might be supposed to give vent to.”
This tribe of Hindu munshis or the “slavish crew” of Elliot have a long life and show a remarkable continuity. Instead of diminishing, their number has multiplied with time. Today, they dominate the universities, the media and the country’s political thinking.
They were reinforced by another set of historians - those who carry the British tradition. One very important thing in common with them is that they continue to look at India through the eyes of Muslim and British rulers even long after their rule has ceased.
Elliot regards the problem with moral indignation but the phenomenon involves deep psychological and sociological factors. It is more complex than the question of patronage enjoyed or tyranny withdrawn.
Hindus have lived under very trying circumstances for many centuries and during this time their psyche suffered much damage. Short term tyranny may prove a challenge but long-term, sustained tyranny tends to benumb and dehumanize. Under continued military and ideological attack, many Hindus lost initiative and originality; they lost naturalness and self-confidence; they lost pride in themselves, pride in their past and in their history and in their nation. They learnt to live a sort of underground life, furtively and apologetically. Some tried to save their self-respect by identifying themselves with the thoughts and sentiments of the rulers. They even adopted the rulers’ contempt for their own people.
These attitudes imbibed over a long period have become our second nature, and they have acquired an independence and dynamism of their own. We have begun to look at ourselves through the eyes of our rulers.
One would have thought that all this would change after we attained Independence, but this did not happen. It shows that to throw off an intellectual and cultural yoke is far more difficult than to throw off a political yoke.
By and large we have retained our old history written by our rulers. The leaders of the nationalist movement are quite content with it, except that they have added to it one more chapter at the end which depicts them in a super-heroic role. The new leaders have no greater vision of Indian history and they look forward to no greater task than to perpetuate themselves.
In fact they have developed a vested interest in old history which propagates that India was never a nation, that it had not known any freedom or freedom-struggle in the past. By sheer contrast, it exalts their role and proves something they would like to believe - that they are the first nation-builders, that they led the first freedom struggle India has ever known and, indeed, she became free for the first time under their aegis. This highly flatters their ego, and to give themselves this unique status we find that their attacks on India’s past are as vicious and ignorant as those of the British and Muslim historians. No wonder histories continue to be written with all the contempt we learnt to feel for our past, and with all the lack of understanding we developed for our culture during the days of foreign domination.
A new source of distortion was opened during the period of the freedom struggle itself. Nationalist leaders strove to win Muslim support for the Independence struggle. In the hope of achieving this end, Indian nationalism itself began to rewrite the history of medieval times. Under this motivation, Muslim rule became ‘indigenous’, and Muslim kings became ‘national’ kings, and even nationalists, those who fought them began to receive a low score. R.C. Mojumdar tells us how, under this motivation, national leaders created an “imaginary history”, one of them even proclaiming that “Hindus were not at all a subject race during the Muslim rule,” and how “these absurd notions, which would have been laughed at by Indian leaders at the beginning of the 19th century, passed current as history… at the end of that century”.
Marxists have taken to rewriting Indian history on a large scale and it has meant its systematic falsification. They have a dogmatic view of history and for them the use of any history is to prove their dogma. Their very approach is hurtful to truth. But this is a large subject and we would not go into it here, even though it is related intimately to the subject under discussion.
The Marxists’ contempt for India, particularly the India of religion, culture and philosophy, is deep and theoretically fortified. It exceeds the contempt ever shown by the most die-hard imperialists. Some of the British had an orientalist’s fascination for the East or an administrator's paternal concern for their wards, but Marxists suffer from no such sentimentality. The very “Asiatic mode of production” was primitive and any, “superstructure” of ideas and culture built on that foundation must be barbaric too and it had better go.
Not many realize how thoroughly European Marx was in his orientation. He treated all Asia and Africa as an appendage of the West and, indeed, of the Anglo-Saxon Great Britain. He borrowed all his theses on India from British rulers and fully subscribed to them. With them he believes that “Indian society has no history at all, at least no known history,” and that what “we call its history, is the history of successive intruders.” With them he also believes that India “has neither known nor cared for self-rule.” In fact, he rules out self-rule for India altogether and in this matter gives her no choice. He says that the question is “not whether the English bad a right to conquer India, but whether we are to prefer India conquered by the Turk, by the Persian, by the Russian, to India conquered by the Briton.” His own choice was clear.
Indian Marxists fully accept this thesis, except that they are also near-equal admirers of the “Turkish” conquest of India. Indian Marxists get quite lyrical about this conquest and find quite fulfilment in it. Let us illustrate the point with the example of M.N. Roy. We are told that he gave up Marxism but he kept enough of it to retain his admiration for Muslim Imperialism. He admires the “historical role of Islam” in a book of the same name and praises the “Arab Empire” as a “magnificent monument to the memory of Mohammad.” He hails Muslim invasion of India and tells us how “it was welcomed as a message of hope and freedom by the multitudinous victims of Brahmanical reaction.”
Earlier, Roy had spoken of “our country” which “had become almost liberated from the Moslem Empire.” But that was long ago when he was merely a nationalist and had not come under the influence of Marxism. Marxism teaches a new appreciation for Imperialism; it idealises old Imperialisms and prepares a people for a new one. Its moving power is deep-rooted self-alienation and its greatest ally is cultural and spiritual illiteracy.
Marxist writers and historians of a sort are all over the place and they are well entrenched in the academic and media sectors. They have a great say in University appointments and promotions, in the awarding of research grants, in drawing up syllabi, and in the choosing and prescribing of text-books. No true history of India is possible without countering their philosophy, ideas and influence.
Indian Express, January 15, 1989