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6. Uses of History in Contemporary India

This module focuses on history writing in colonial and postcolonial India and particular uses of the past at various moments in Indian history. It stresses that the nature of history being written is determined substantially by its particular contemporary historical context. We will see how the writing of history has been used, both to arbitrarily validate contemporary agendas, as well as to acquire an understanding of the present through more insightful explanations of the past.

To draw from one of the most glaring examples of recent times, the violence triggered by the Ramjanmabhumi movement reached its climax on December 6, 1992, when the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya was destroyed by thousands of angry volunteers eager to avenge what they believed was a historical wrong. The ongoing debate about the ‘truth’ about the Ramjanmabhumi has thrown up several questions that require us to understand the nature of history and its uses in contemporary times: What is the nature of the history around which so much bloodshed has already happened and what is the status of the concept of history so frequently invoked by Indian historians to clinch the argument of Ramjanmabhumi one way or the other? Why didn’t the same history move millions of Indians over hundreds of years—not even the first generation of Indian nationalists in the 19th century?

This module will explore these and other questions, including the relationship between the past and the present as reflected in the project of history writing in India.




History and its colonial origins



Widespread opinion sees the discipline of history as having its origins in what has been loosely termed 'modernity'—be it the Enlightenment, colonialism or nationalism. In this formulation, pre-colonial India had no historical consciousness as such.


This is one of the contentions in the historian Partha Chatterjee's text Nation and Its Fragments. Chatterjee argues that this was evident in the fact that in most pre-colonial schemes of history, for instance, dynastic changes were explained in terms of divine intervention. Thus rulers of kingdoms were appointed by divine will and by "attaining the highest levels of dharma, one could even become the ruler of the entire earth". In order to distinguish this variety of history writing from what we are more familiar with today, Partha Chatterjee calls these narratives 'Puranic history' (Partha Chatterjee The Nation and its Fragments, p.85). See for example, the following description of a battle from one such Puranic history text written in the early 19th century:


'Then Prithviraj emerged from his quarters and engaged Shahabuddin in a ferocious battle. But by the grace of Isvara [God], the Yavana Shahabuddin made a prisoner of Prithviraj'. (Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and its Fragments, p.81).


The description of this battle would undergo a total transformation in the middle of the 19th century, with the emergence of what is today recognised as the rationalist tradition of history writing, which privileged the rational, scientific, historical narrative over the mythical. The emphasis was on 'real, objective history writing', produced mostly by Indians educated in new colonial institutions and schooled in the principles of European history, statecraft, and social philosophy.


As we will see in the film clip below, however, the break between myth and history cannot be taken very far. Even in contemporary Indian polity and society, for instance, myths evidently continue to be an essential part of the historical consciousness.


To read more on colonialism and history writing, click on The Nation and its Fragments.



History, reform, modernisation





The shift to a rationalist history writing also saw Indian historians taking on the role of vigorous advocates of 'reform' and 'modernisation' of society, possibly triggered by the evident contrast between Indian and European societies. Thus, despite their other ideological differences, the new Indian intellectuals of the 19th century were almost all convinced that the "old society had to be reformed in order to make it adequate for coping with the modern world". This is perhaps one of the early examples of the use of history in India and its relationship with the historical context.

The concern with 'social reform' could be easily expanded to nationalism and Indian nationalist historiography made its appearance against this background in the late 19th century. The project of history writing now had a more visible objective—that of creating a sense of nationhood through the evocation of a collective historical consciousness.

Resistance to colonial power was an essential condition for the emergence of these histories, a factor that linked them integrally to the question of power and dominance.

For a more detailed discussion of the structures of historiography during the colonial period, and their relationship with power and dominance, read the following passage:

1. The historiography of Indian nationalism has for a long time been dominated by elitism-colonialist elitism and bourgeois- nationalist elitism.

2. Both originated as the ideological product of British rule in India, but have survived the transfer of power and been assimilated to neo-colonialist and neo-nationalist forms of discourse in Britain and India respectively. Elitist historiography of the colonialist or neo-colonialist type counts British writers and institutions among its principal protagonists, but has its imitators in India and other countries too. Elitist historiography of the nationalist or neo-nationalist type is primarily an Indian practice but not without imitators in the ranks of liberal historians in Britain and elsewhere. Both these varieties of elitism share the prejudice that the making of the Indian nation and the development of nationalist consciousness which informed this process, were exclusive and/or predominantly elite achievements.

In the colonialist and neo-colonialist historiographies these achievements are credited to British colonial rulers, administrators, policies, institutions and culture; in the nationalist and neo-nationalist writings - to Indian elite personalities, institutions, activities and ideas. (Ranajit Guha, An Indian Historiography of India: A Nineteenth Century Agenda and Its Implications, Calcutta, 1988)



Nationalist history





To sum up, the following trends appeared to characterise nationalist histories at the end of the colonial period:

The analysis of the colonial economy and arguments linking Indian poverty to colonial economic exploitation of various kinds. The writings of Dadabhai Naoroji (Poverty and Un-British Rule in India, London, 1901) and R P Dutt (India Today, London, 1940) are good examples.

The periodisation of Indian history into 'Hindu' and 'Muslim', based on the assumption that there were two fundamentally mutually exclusive civilizations in the sub-continent, that of the Hindus and of the Muslims. The terms 'Hindu period' and 'Muslim period' were later changed to the presumably more secular, 'ancient', 'medieval' and 'modern', but the markers of periodisation remained the same.

The acceptance of the argument that society was divided into castes—the four varnas—and these formed a social structure, again unchanging through history.

The thrust of history writing during this period was also to conceptualise cultural nationalism, which involved a frequent representation of several collective identities (for example 'Hindus' and 'Muslims') as unchanging and eternal.

Characterised by what Partha Chatterjee terms a "tidal wave of historical memory about Arya-Hindu-Bharatvarsha", (Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and Its Fragments, p.6) nationalist histories were frequently based on Orientalist "rediscoveries of India's past" and the readings of or translations of texts that generally produced an idea of India and its past within a Sanskritic tradition and colonial political borders.

In most parts of colonial India, history writing almost always partially subscribed to this tradition, either by reinforcing it or by presenting it as uniquely able to accommodate and absorb variety.

To conclude this section, it is equally important to recognise that several scholars have also critiqued those who have traced the beginnings of a historical consciousness to colonial India, thus creating the representation of pre-colonial India as pre-scientific, retrograde and irrational. See for example, the following quote from the essay “History's Forgotten Doubles” by Ashis Nandy:

"However odd this may sound to readers… millions of people still live outside “history”. They do have theories of the past; they do believe that the past is important, and shapes the present and the future, but they also recognize, confront, and live with a past that is different from that constructed by historians and historical consciousness. They even have a different way of arriving at that past" (Ashis Nandy, "History’s Forgotten Doubles", p.9).



History writing in post colonial India




In the 1950s and 60s, the initial question confronting national leaders, was how the new nation was to be shaped.


This required an understanding of the components of the nation and the form they had taken in the past. The needs of the Indian nation state were clearly the primary contemporary concern in the postcolonial period and a broadly reassuring account of the past had to be produced, which could give the region a territoriality that had existed from time immemorial.

The following passage illustrates why a nation has to be imagined and given a ‘past’:

" …in Western Europe the eighteenth century marks not only the dawn of the age of nationalism but the dusk of religious modes of thought. The century of the Enlightenment, of rationalist secularism, brought with it its own modern darkness.

With the ebbing of religious belief, the suffering which belief in part composed did not disappear. Disintegration of paradise: nothing makes fatality more arbitrary. Absurdity of salvation: nothing makes another style of continuity more necessary. What then was required was a secular transformation of fatality into continuity, contingency into meaning. As we shall see, few things were (are) better suited to this end than an idea of nation. If nation-states are widely conceded to be ‘new’ and ‘historical,’ the nations to which they give political expression always loom out of an immemorial past (Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, Chapter 2).

Considerable encouragement from the state, combined with access to late-colonial archives made easy with the introduction of a 30 year rule (after which official records would be made available to the public), ensured that the anti-colonial struggle—at the all India, regional and even district level—became the favourite topic of research in the history departments of various Indian universities. There were also several historical works on understanding the process of state formation in history. Among other things, these works suggested differences in the processes of state formation and discussed the presence of tensions between local autonomy and the centre in different periods of history.

However, with several texts from this period appealing to ideas of a continuous past and space, there was often a tension between admitting the complexity of the historical facts and the need to give the emerging Indian nation a past, as it were.

The contemporary continued to be of significance in determining the nature of historical research in postcolonial India. There was a questioning of earlier ways of understanding the past—a questioning of conventional history, which essentially "juxtaposed the succession of dynasties one more glorious than the next—with economic history, social history and the history of religion and the arts" (Romila Thapar, "Decolonising the Past"). Several historians also questioned the validity of periodising Indian history as 'Hindu' or 'Muslim' and expressed doubts over any period being described as consistently glorious or tyrannical.

History was now more than just the study of dynasties. Instead, the preoccupations of history writing shifted to unearthing pasts that had not been exposed earlier. The major area of advance was in economic history, which now built a more enriched critique of colonial policies and structures through the use of more sophisticated tools and empirical details. Thus, an understanding of politics, the economy, social forms, religious expressions and the formation and fragmentation of various identities were among the preoccupations of the historians of this period. The more challenging trend now was to pursue answers to questions related to why and how rather than merely when and where.

There was also growing interest in the writing of regional histories, assisted to some extent by the creation of linguistic states from the 1950s, superseding the more arbitrary boundaries of the colonial provinces. To quote the historian Romila Thapar, "the standpoint of subcontinental history, conventionally viewed from the Ganga plain, has had to change with the emergence of regional perspectives".

These fundamental shifts in the writing of history in the period after colonial rule, therefore, were in response to changes in contemporary Indian society and polity.

Click on link Eric Hobsbawm, 'What can history tell us about contemporary society?' in On History

From the above reading, how useful do you think the past is in understanding the present?



Recent shifts




In the last two decades, some of the most persistent critiques of the standard anti-colonial nationalist model have come from historians of the Subaltern School.


Recall here what you studied about Subaltern Studies in the second module, Cultural Studies. To give you a brief recap: Historians from this school argued that the anti-colonial struggle has been explained too often in terms of economic pressures and mobilization from the top by leaders, portrayed as manipulative in colonial, and idealistic in nationalist, historiography. Studies of peasant and labour movements, similarly, had concentrated on economic conditions and Left organisational and ideological lineages. The new trend sought to explore the neglected dimension of popular or subaltern autonomy in action, consciousness and culture (Remember Guha’s essay, "Prose of Counter-Insurgency" which pointed out that peasant revolts were deliberate political actions).
Another example of historical writing that questioned the earlier historical narratives, particularly the nature of periodisation, was the rapidly growing genre of environmental or ecological history, which often had to work with scales of time that did not coincide with conventional periodisations.
More criticism of the triumphant story of Indian nationalism has come from feminist scholars. Questioning the narrative of the unilinear 'advance in the status of women' in Indian history, these writers have suggested more nuanced readings and readings of the past that recognise the reproduction of patriarchy in different communities and the subsequent displacement of the women's question. For instance, the editors of a seminal anthology on women's history, published in 1989, argued that
"the social and political developments of the past two decades have shattered the post-colonial complacency about the improving status of women, and with it has gone the legitimacy of the nationalist models of reform and 'development'. It is now apparent that far from enjoying the benefits of so-called development, the majority of women have in fact been pushed to the margins of the productive process" (Sudesh Vaid, p.3).
Remember also what you read in the second module about calls for the creation of a feminist history and a re-centring of knowledge to go beyond contributory feminist histories.



Contesting pasts





What emerges from the above discussion is the extremely contested nature of the past. This is particularly evident in the manner in which history textbooks have become the battleground for various ideologies in recent times. You will have seen articles in the newspapers in the last few years about the textbook controversy. The controversy centred around the project of the re-writing of NCERT text books initiated under the BJP government and the resistance that it faced from several academics who opposed the ideology of the RSS and the BJP. These historians claimed that the NCERT textbooks commissioned in the 1970s were authored by historians who helped eliminate the blatant communalism of earlier prescribed texts. The project of the re-writing of history textbooks for schools in the 1990s was therefore seen as an attempt to propagate the 'Hindutva view of history' in order to legitimise a particular identity and a particular perception of nationalism. Further, it was seen as endorsing the colonial frames of interpreting Indian history that we discussed in the first section of this module. The same version of a past, therefore, could be used in very different ways by differing and opposed political agendas (Remember what you read about colonial interpretations and their agenda in the fourth module. Think about what you have just read about the Hindutva agenda.) More significantly, a differentiation has to be made between a history based on the critical enquiry that governs historical method and a history put together from preferred preconceptions.

The following paragraph is a response from the historian Romila Thapar in an interview about the writing of history in India. The interview was published in The Hindu, 19th December 2005.

Click on this link to read the entire interview.

Q: Would you then say that this historiographical advance makes it imperative that historians realise that history is as rigorous a discipline as any other science and that teaching and research have to be constantly updated, both in content and methodology? And that students are made aware of the importance of multiple and diverse perspectives of historical processes and events, which cannot have a mono-causal explanation?

Romila Thapar: As you know, we have all been arguing for many years now that the writing of history has to be based on what historians now call "the Historical Method". Stated briefly this requires ensuring the reliability of the evidence that is used (and this requires wide-ranging training in handling sources), the critical analyses of the evidence, assessing the priorities among multiple causes and the logical basis of the historical arguments that follow. Historical writing is not a free-for-all in which anyone can claim to be writing history. The use of historical method has primacy in historical writing. Yes, it is a rigorous discipline. It is the same with the more intellectually challenging writing in all subjects. It is this kind of change that encourages advances in knowledge. The advances are also dependent, as you rightly say, on constantly updating the content and methodology of the discipline. In the case of history, an awareness of the method and the changes also come through historiography—that is, the history of ideas relating to historical explanation. Inevitably this becomes a component of historical method.

Now think of answers to these questions in the light of the above paragraph.

According to Thapar, who writes our histories?

Is there a difference between a history put together from preferred preconceptions, and a history based on critical enquiry?

Can you explain how some of the history written during the colonial period and the history written under the Hindutva agenda use the same version of the past for different objectives? You can frame your answers with reference to earlier modules also if you wish.




References and Readings






Ali, Daud, (ed.), Invoking the Past, The Uses of History in South Asia, New Delhi, 1999.

Chatterjee, Partha, 'Claims of the past: genealogy of modern historiography in Bengal', in David Arnold and David Hardiman (eds.), Subaltern Studies VIII. Essays in Honour of Ranajit Guha, Delhi, 1994.

----, The Nation and Its Fragments, Colonial and Post Colonial Histories, Princeton, 1993.

Guha, Ranajit, Subaltern Studies, Vol. 1, Delhi, 1982.

------, An Indian Historiography of India: A Nineteenth Century Agenda and Its Implications, Calcutta, 1988

Kaviraj, Sudipta, 'The Imaginary Institution of India', in Partha Chatterjee and David Arnold (eds.), Subaltern Studies, Vol. VII, Delhi, 1993

Nandy, Ashis, ‘History’s Forgotten Doubles’, History and Theory, Vol. 34, No. 2, May, 1995.

Thapar, Romila 'Decolonising the Past, Historical Writing in the Time of Sachin --- and Beyond', Economic and Political Weekly, April 2, 2005.

Vaid, Sudesh, and Kumkum Sangari, Recasting Women, Essays in Colonial History, Delhi, 1989.

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