History, Fact and Fiction

NCERT School

I hazard an intrusion into an area which professional historians might regard trespass or even worse.Nevertheless as a person interested in lessons of history and the way these are consciously or unconsciously dispensed one needs must observe and watch closely the unfolding project to refashion it in a particular way to derive a preconceived lesson.Reasons are plain and need not be labored here.

The outrage among academics is justified and widely supported by the educated public unaffected by communal propaganda.It is plain confidence trick to remove important chapters from History textbooks in the name of ‘rationalization’. But the debate on Indian history is much more complex than the educated public and even some professional historians conceive.It is not simply a matter of recording faithfully what lies out there in the landscape of time.There is nothing really out there solid and ready to hand waiting to be picked up and packaged into a book.

We were not there centuries back as witnesses when events happened and we have no direct access to that past.We have a miscellaneous assemblage of artifacts,ruins, contemporary records,documents and other material signs as well as oral or recorded memories of later times to gather and sift to form patterns that make them intelligible.Then there is discussion among historians of such events to rigorously check the pattern’s approximation to truth or its freedom from errors,fallacies and bias.However compact and error-proof you make it,it might get upset by discovery of new factual evidence or neglected aspects that had major influence on the events that are recorded.Even historians who stubbornly refuse to see any pattern in events are compelled to use such general concepts as conflict among states and among social groups or among important personalities telling on the shape of the events,and such concepts are also more or less retrospectively formed by historians giving an account of them.

Marxist Historiography

Marxism had gone farthest in boldly constructing out of such evidence basic socio-economic features that determine the course and character of the events and other epiphenomena that come into being and dialectically interact with the base to form a rich and multitudinous whole that is society in movement.However Marxist accounts do not provide an unambiguous clue to the relative importance of many factors that go into the making of those events.Class-struggle to be sure provides the master key but it is as difficult to figure out what is the tipping point where a revolutionary class can realize its moment has come and act decisively today as it was in the past and many forays at times later understood to be inopportune ended in ghastly tragedies and costly discomfiture.

Further there are times in history like those acknowledged by the ‘Annalen’ school in France where there could be centuries of a ‘long ue duree’ when class-struggle proceeds very sluggishly indeed and the stagnation creates its own derangement and order decays into chaos.During the heyday of revolutionary crises and upsurges it had been easy to overlook such possibilities.But in the midst of all this there remains the unchallengeable fact that there is life only in movement and death in immobility.

It so happens that while class-struggle may be the core the outer shells are so complex and compounded that they often become the major contradiction in sight.Though doubtless set in motion by profound impulses from deep below,they get people passionately involved and absorbed.Issues like nation,culture gender,and so on become the major fulcrum of progressive forces and these need full attention from forces that seek life from death.

UPA Government And Text Books

The twentieth century had been dominated for at least eighty years or so by the immense struggle of oppressed and colonized peoples all over the world.In 2012 during the UPA government itself new NCERT textbooks for class XII removed chapters on colonialism and national liberation in the period of enchantment with neo-liberal policy,when both the brokers of foreign investors and native private capital were out of love with struggle for liberation from foreign yoke,and they propagated the myth of a smooth frictionless partnership of all nations in world trade.A myth that exploded on its own within fifteen years.At that time I had expressed strong misgivings about it and continued to do so,but nobody in the Left took much notice of it.I still hold a considered view that it was through such small breaches in defences of the nation left by Congress-led UPA that the elements that plague us today had crept in and are swarming today.

Indian Nation And History

So what has Indian history got to do with it? Quite a lot. For Indian history as conceived across the board is the history of India and the Indian nation,not of a schematically conceived coalition of classes arrayed against one other coalition.That core remains in the region of possibility but is still inchoate,and the fate of the nation is largely being forged by contradictions within the ruling coalition with support mobilized from below.That is also conceivably as problems of the nation.

But is there a nation? There is or is being formed a nation along the lines laid down by the Indian constitution,which actually aimed at building a modern democratic nation free from communal tensions and fissiparous tendencies inherited from the past.Feudal bastions,vested regional and communal interests still held forces of progress and it was vital to bring to birth a comity of free nationalities and groups united by prospects of liberty and equality,and by no means by elimination of historical differences.That’s where both the grave current problems and the making of history are being resolved.For we write history even as we as a people are making it.

Britain And Indian History

History in the modern sense got started in India after British occupation,unlike the old sense of ‘tale’ following application of modern scientific methods to collection,verification and record of evidence and the ordering of the account of events.British colonial interest gave the final touch to it for good or ill.The periodization,the conceptualization and the injection of meaning emerging from the consecutive events by and large followed the conventional British dynastic histories and thanks to the presence of so many competing dynasties something like a straitjacket was forced on proliferating data.

Since the British considered it their God-given mission to unite by force and policy multiple mutually warring dynasties and kingdoms into something like a common state they regarded all previous dynasties that attempted such a feat,like the Mauryas,the Guptas and the Mughals as their predecessors and their own accomplishment as the climax of this process of building order out of chaos.And it was for them important to emphasize it in place of regional diversities that make up the story.

The diversities like Hindus and Muslims were naturally enforced into the record in turn injecting such sense and consciousness into both the population groups.Likewise castes were recorded and frozen into categories intelligible and liable to orderly systematization.But regional entities were left to write their own histories except in Assam where there was a local tradition of writing and preserving local chronicles.There too the British imposesed their own pattern on the matter from chronicles.

Making of Indian History

Indians who were trained in and practised such history accomplished on their own gigantic feats of scholarship by collating and ordering vast numbers and variety of facts with astounding energy,concentration and patient discipline, assessing their accuracy,sifting their acceptability and moulding them into some sort of a shape.Giants like R.C.Majumdar,Sir Jadunath Sarkar and so on. While not directly challenging the colonial narrative they sought to find some relief from a sense of oppression by discovering in the past striking revelations of Hindu glory and military might of the Mughal empire.However with a few exceptions Hindu historians gravitated to the kings dubbed ‘Hindu’ and Muslim historians favoring ‘Muslim’ kings and emperors.( Long before this in Western imagination Muslim rulers had become stereotyped as despots or tyrants.)

The Brits had somehow united India by expanding their rule and establishing vast networks of modern communication like railways ,telegraph etc.But though Indians traveled across the country they still practically remained strangers to one another.It was Gandhi’s call that awoke and stirred people at the grassroots and united them to take up the task of wresting freedom from the colonial power.They were emotionally united as never before.Millions adopted his simple spartan way of life,the home-spun cloth and the vow not to rest before freedom was won. Inert India pulsated with one life and soul,but Gandhi respected and found room for regional diversity.

The Constitution worked on such foundations to forge a union of states.National integration, social reform and political imagination all went into play to form a nation-state out of heterogeneity and diversity. It was the history of this new entity that was the task before historians.Nehru indirectly promoted work in this field as in many other directions.The memory of the calamitous riots of partition made it urgent to heal divisions and Dr Tarachand was entrusted the work of researching and recording the past co-operation,assimilation and fraternity between the two major communities.Dr S.N.Sen was set to work to appropriate the memories of the great rebellion of 1857 as the first Indian War of Independence from foreign yoke.But school textbooks on history for a good ten years or so still remained spotty with anti-Muslim fables as a legacy and reminder of British designs.

Then followed three to four decades of remarkable historical efflorescence.Dr Kosambi a mathematician estranged from the CPI in testy isolation, dismissing contemporary Communist historians as OM ( official Marxists!) brought out his seminal INTRODUCTION TO THE STUDY OF INDIAN HISTORY, where he laid bare the foundations of India’s socio-economic life,traced persistence of primitive relics in later society and culture with some personal fieldwork,and followed the evolution of that society and culture through revolutions in the mode of production.This compact book and its sequel on the culture and civilization of ancient India blazed the path for many scholars now in their eighties and nineties.Both had been strewn with many striking insights some of which still surprise professional historians by lighting up some places and times,for example the link between Buddhist shrines and trade routes as found in recent discovery of Buddhist ruins in areas covered today with dense jungles.

The mind-boggling rivalries and conflicts of a hundred and odd dynasties got somewhat replaced by attention to simpler kind of social phenomena, though by no means simplistic.Giants like Romila Thapar, R.S.Sharma,Irfan Habib and other luminaries devoted themselves to such studies.In the seventies their organizing concepts like ‘feudalism’ were challenged by scholars like Harbans Mukhia and Ashok Rudra,but I think those seminal ideas were not exactly reduced to junk.

One great relief had been the firm identification of some political rationale for some of the most brutal,gruesome and apparently insane violence of certain episodes of persecution,reprisal and bigotry,though it was hardly an apologia for them.History had thus become enlightening and liberating,freeing us from bandage to violence of bygone times.

National identification is not much of a problem for Western countries except with some new migrants,formally speaking.In Britain nobody today questions who is a descendant of Saxons and who is of Norman origin.In America too there is not much concern about who can call himself a direct descendant of the Pilgrim Fathers and whose parents had moved in from Central Europe in the nineteen thirties.References in the press about their original ancestry or countries do not upset them much.Neither does family religion raise hackles.But here in our country one’s origins,whether in caste,religion or region might lead to uncomfortable sensitivities both in a person and in people he comes in contact with.Abroad much of that sensitivity disappears though regional identities do linger.However we are all Indians there.(Recent reports from America suggest caste retains its diabolic hold even there.)

Where Indian History Failed?

To sum up this is where Indian history has failed to accomplish in the imagination of the Indian identity.Differences not only persist but also vitiate consciousness and discourse to a discomforting degree.When somebody gives a glowing account of Ashoka the ordinary Muslim feels somewhat distant.When the mighty and opulent Mughals are extolled some Bengalis might feel themselves in the shade.The spiritual legacy of the Vedas that continue to enthral the Hindu might leave the Christian cold.These are facts of life and there is not much point in disputing them though to be sure there are exceptions as usual.

It thus appears that somehow half-way down the road our rulers had abandoned the original constitutional project of building bridges and integrating all groups in the country’s population emotionally and spiritually.Historians also had wrestled mightily with problems that were already there, bequeathed by their predecessors,problems of origins and descent,but failed to connect with other insidious ones that steal upon one unawares, problems of unfinished nation-building.

It is here that the Saffron army has stolen a march,with an imagination of a monolithic homogenous nationhood that solves the problems of unity by forcibly steamrolling over them.The innate violence of the project is echoed by violence on the streets.Fall in line,it screams,or pay a heavy price for it.

The danger of the situation struck me disagreeably the other day as I listened,as always keyed up and buoyed up,to Prof.Irfan Habib discussing with an interviewer from NEWSCLICK the current attempts by the Saffron brigades to scissor out willfully parts of Indian history that flutter their dovecotes.The interviewer asked Prof.Habib what he thought of ‘the Ahom empire’s challenge’ to the Mughal empire’.

Prof.Habib to my dismay seemed to have lost his cool sobriety and in an impassioned voice exclaimed that the Ahoms had come from Thailand and they felt more akin to Thais,that they called themselves Tai-Ahoms,and farther they were bent upon uniting with other Thai inhabited regions right down South-East Asia.It did not for a moment occur to him that such views might upset many Ahoms in Assam who did not cherish such fantasies.

To set the record straight,the Ahom kingdom had never been much of an empire and in fact been minuscule set against the vast extent,population and resources of the Mughal empire. But to the surprise of many,after having been overwhelmed by the outstanding general Mir Jumla,who came at the head of an enormous force with three thousand war-boats, and forced to surrender on humiliating terms, the Ahoms then defied the Mughals and fought back another huge Mughal force to regain their independence.(Incidentally there were many Muslims including sons of Mughal POWs who fought alongside the Assamese against the invading Mughal army.).Of course they were not foolish enough to.march to Delhi.These are the facts.And these should not have nettled a seasoned,mature scholar.

Further the Ahoms might belong to the same race,but for seven hundred years they had nothing to do with the Thais of Thailand..Besides they trace their descent directly to the Dai people of Yunnan Autonomous province in China,with which too they had no direct links for centuries.The dream of uniting with other adjacent Tai regions of SE ASIA is a pipe dream,considering the distance they had travelled over the centuries and assimilated themselves to local cultures and accepted Assamese as their mother-tongue to boot.

The dream of separation was born in the thick of communal politics fomented by British rulers by offering sops of ‘self-government’ to native Indian through Morley-Minto reforms and the GOI Act of 1935.Piqued by perceived deprivation by Congress leaders from a share in political power some Ahom leaders who previously were in Congress left it in disgust and bitterly vented their rage against caste-Hindus.This division was exploited gleefully by the British governor and commissioners. Ahom farmers who constituted the majority were stirred more by the Non Co-operation and the Quit India movements. Independence left separatists out in the cold and they were won over.In the turbulent days of the Assam Movement it was the Congress party at the centre and state which promoted this separatist sentiment in order to weaken Assamese nationalism. Though still influential many Ahoms(and this author is one of them) feel completely cheesed off by such fantasies as separatism always defies reason and leads to violence.

In any case Prof.Habib’s views are neither here nor there as far as the original query was concerned.It only shows how much anxiety the serene ‘idea of India’ still has pent up within it because historians and nation-builders look away from the task Implicit in the Constitution.And now with the BJP regarding federalism as a bloody nuisance that task is unlikely to be taken up again soon.

Hiren Gohain is a political commentator

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