Early British writers on India, such as Alexander Dow (c. 1735-1799) and Sir William Jones (1746-1794), were impressed by the antiquity of what they found in India’s past, and much British writing of the period 1770-1830 had a quality of genuine antiquarian engagement. But this attitude gradually passed away, and its last great exponents were James Tod, who published his Annals and Antiquities of Rajast’han in the late 1820s, and Mountstuart Elphinstone, whose two volume History of India, appeared in 1841. The antiquarian school, curious and innocent, gradually gave way to the era of grand imperial history, in which the British began to write as masters rather than mere observers. The harbinger of this change was the publication of James Mill’s History of India in 1817, which contained a hostile depiction of India’s backwardness, ignorance, superstition, cruelty and so forth. Mill was a rational liberal and felt that India was a vast unformed pool of traditional medieval barbarism, and that it was Britain’s job to change this. The book was hugely influential. Its general analysis and its sense of ‘mission’ remained visible in imperial historical works until well into the twentieth century.
Once the Uprising of 1857 had been suppressed, the colonial project took its full, unopposed shape, breeding the worst excesses of imperialist historiography. For the next half century the treatment of India by men like Herbert H. Risley on ethnography, James Fergusson on architecture, George Birdwood on art, or Professor Goldwin Smith on politics and history reflected a set of highly chauvinistic, Eurocentric attitudes, critical of India and full of patronising assumptions. The historian J. R. Seeley even denied that the ‘conquest’ of India had been any sort of real conquest at all.
Some Indian nationalists have claimed that British historians deliberately rewrote Indian history, but this is not generally true. The British spent a great deal of time trying to write ancient and mediaeval Indian history correctly, and their work remained generally factually accurate even as the British began to make Indian history as much as to write it. There is very little in the work of Jadunath Sarkar, a man who went out of his way to read all the sources available, that contradicts the work of pioneering British writers who came before him. James Grant Duff’s work on the Marathas, Tod’s on Rajasthan, Cunningham’s on the Sikhs and Orme’s on EIC military history are still the factual backbone of many popular history books by Indian authors.
It is British attitudes that ought to be questioned, not the outline history they wrote, because the British were certainly not above mythologising some of their own achievements; the fighting and loss of life endured by all sides in the struggle for conquest bred many legends. The most disreputable of these was of the Black Hole of Calcutta, but in the eighty years after 1756, British historians up to and including Charles Stewart in 1813 and James Mill in 1817, were moderate and balanced in their reporting of it. Only later, with the arrival of full imperial power, did more lurid versions of the story become accepted as literal truth.
Historical works of the later imperial era were confident and self-satisfied, reflecting the view that India had fallen, at last, into the right hands. Such works contain constant references to ‘the Asiatic mind’ and other forms of clearer or subtler racism, particularly the idea that Indians were like squabbling children, and the recurrent tropes of spineless Hindus and Muslim fanatics. There was also an overarching and completely sincere conviction that the British were doing good work in India and that Indians were definitely better off being ruled by the British than attempting the job themselves. These basic beliefs went way beyond academic circles and included journalists, politicians and government officials. India under Curzon and After (1911) by Lovat Fraser, editor of The Times of India, reads like a Raj manifesto, and it harmonises perfectly with the rhetoric of Viceroys, the memoirs of former officials, the endless stream of biography of Raj heroes, and even the fiction of Kipling.
For a complete set of late imperial attitudes one can do no better than to read India Insistent, written in 1931 by Sir Harcourt Butler, a career Indian civil servant. This short book contains almost the complete set of imperial prejudices, and even finds time to speculate on the link between ‘strong sunlight and sexual activity’ (p. 31).
But this outlook lost its self-confidence as the end of the Raj hove into view, and India Insistent is a bit of a last hurrah. Once it was made clear how unpopular British rule had become, it was hard to sustain the idea that Britain, as a civilising force, had any mandate to bring change to India. From the 1920s onwards, books are much more pessimistic. Fears multiply for a future India, left to herself unaided. There are worries that another power (meaning Russia) would simply walk in as soon as the British left. Optimism only remained among Christian evangelists, who still harboured hopes that Indians would grow to love white religion, even if they could not tolerate white rule. Such writers were loath to abandon ‘our work’, especially as they were convinced the tide was turning and Indian souls would soon be ripe for harvest. India in the Dark Wood (1930) by Nichol Macnichol is relentlessly hopeful, and The Indian Outlook (1926) by W. E. S. Holland even contains an extraordinary comment from a District Magistrate in Bengal, who said: ‘My district will be a Christian country before so very long’ (p. 195).
After independence, British historical writing on India declined, while continuing in a rather more detached manner. There were even signs of enthusiasm, such as A. L. Basham’s The Wonder That Was India (1954). Indology then became a minor, rather directionless subject within British academe, while a stream of British-educated Indian writers began to take on the task of writing Indian history in various more modern styles. Unaligned ‘liberals’ such as Sarvepalli Gopal were book-ended by writers ranging from the nationalist R. C. Majumdar in the late 1940s, through to the debunker of nationalism and founding member of the ‘Cambridge School’, Anil Seal in the late 1960s.
Western scholarship about India, and the east in general, was then given a cuff round the ear in 1978 when Edward Said published his highly influential Orientalism. This is one book that cannot be ignored in any discussion of modern scholarship about India.
Although he was specifically referring to writing about the Middle East, Said’s thesis was that expert western writing about the east, conventionally called ‘Orientalism’, was (and is) a form of power relation, a project to create ‘knowledge’ as a means of control. The ‘east’, he maintained, had been lumped together by western writers and tagged as exotic – as ‘Other’ – and had then been given a long list of generalised descriptions, such as traditional, spiritual, mysterious, irrational, sensual, backward, violent and so forth. This packaging enabled westerners to hold up the east as one thing, not many, and to claim objective distance when what was really being established was authority. For Said, this western ploy, consciously or unconsciously, lay at the heart of all writing by westerners about the orient.
His message, in sum, was that ‘Orientalism’ was the latent racism of brainy people, and it has since become just one more discreditable -ism that any writer has to try to avoid in order to prove bona fides.
There is certainly some truth in Said’s position, but his analysis probably works rather better on books written thirty years before his own, and may well generally apply more aptly to works of fiction than to serious works of history. But his ideas soon became hugely influential. His own background was in literary criticism, and writers in the social sciences adopted his ideas and vocabulary with alacrity, ensuring that his concepts immediately attained a wide currency among academics in the Humanities. Some may have misunderstood or overextended Said’s original thesis, but nevertheless a whole new analytical approach emerged, energetic and left-friendly, so that by now, with Said as with Marx, it doesn’t really matter what he actually said, what matters is what people think he said.
Edward Said himself was well aware of this and wrote several times to try to clarify his ideas. In an Afterword to the 1995 edition of Orientalism he specifically dissociated himself from any dogmatic defence of Islam, or any intention to invalidate all western writing about other parts of the world. However, his influence is clearly detectable, and is often specifically referenced, by a very wide range of modern, scholarly writers within the ‘post-colonial’ sphere.
And regardless of what he didn’t say, what he did say is not above criticism. Firstly, Said has no fixed position on ‘truth’, in that it is not clear whether he allows that any writer, while possibly guilty of Orientalism, may also be speaking the truth. If the overall contention is that western writers are all wrong, except when they are right, then this is pure banality. Next, his attempt to discredit the concept of the ‘Other’ is not very helpful, because distinguishing one thing from another – discerning where and why things are different – is the absolute bedrock of all analytical thinking, and to deprive writers of its use is to bring analysis to a halt. Finally, Said’s concession that Orientalism can be ‘latent’ puts the offence on a par with witchcraft in those societies that believe someone can be a witch without knowing it. The cumulative effect of Said’s ideas has been to render potentially invalid almost anything that can be said or thought about Oriental cultures by anyone in the West.
But, if peoples of the east cannot have common attributes awarded to them because this is a western imposition, and if it is also not legitimate to see them in their own context because this is to attribute ‘Orientalist’ characteristics to them, then how can eastern people be described at all? This may not have been Said’s intention, but reading the output of many scholars – such as Gyanendra Pandey – one finds these attitudes expressed. Orientalism has been taken up as a restraint of trade by certain writers, who will not allow non-Indians to suggest that Indians can adopt western ‘bourgeois’ ideas, like individualism or economic self-consciousness. But what is left, then, with which to understand oriental people, if attributing ‘oriental’ qualities to them is also disallowed? And a very long list of actual Orientals have unhesitatingly laid claim to exactly those qualities that Said considers the stock in trade of western domination-mongers. Bankim, Vivekananda, Gandhi, and many traditionalist politicians are happy to acknowledge easterm spirituality. Were/are they wrong? Must they be contradicted to keep the playing field level?
What has resulted in certain quarters is a desert of incomprehension, in which there is no way to explain the behaviour of historic Indians except as puppets of ‘colonialism’. This is hardly satisfactory. It is in fact a new way to infantilise Indians, following on from the one pursued and believed in by the British for over a hundred years. Having been patronised by colonialists, Indians are now being patronised by some of their own scholars.
I am trying here to be anti-Orientalist. My general purpose is to challenge the myth that India is different or special or unique. This objective points up many of the weaknesses within Said’s critique of ‘Orientalism’, because the idea that India is entirely unique and different is a very familiar Indian position, located therefore in the ‘Orient’. It is the position strongly held by the most enthusiastic of the Hindutva nationalists. So, is it ‘Orientalist’ to agree with this position, or to disagree with it? I contend that India is certainly distinctive, and is in a sense unique, but only in the way that all countries, or individual persons, are unique. Nation states do not overlap, so geography confers unique positions upon them. India, viewed in this light, is recognisably individual, but is in no important way absolutely ‘unique’. Her people are simply humans.
The religious faiths of the country are particular, and important to the people that hold them, but religions share much in common, and religious passion is not unique to South Asia. And it must be true that Indians are driven by the same motivations that drive everyone else on the planet – the search for shelter, food, success, happiness, fulfilment, respect, knowledge, wealth and status. India can be understood as part of the world; indeed India can only be truly understood as part of the world, not as a world in herself. The old question “what do they know of England etc.?” can just as easily be applied to India and Indians.
This is a key difference between the Nehruvian-Congress school, which agrees with this proposition, and the Hindutva, which does not.
Congress history has always had a modern, even global, outlook on India, beginning with a series of historical and economic works written by Congress luminaries, such as The Benefits of British Rule (1871) and Poverty And Un-British Rule In India (1901) by Dadabhai Naoroji, and R. C. Dutt’s two-volume Economic History of India (1901-3). These works, however, were rather more polemical-political than historical, and dealt with the Raj present rather than the deeper Indian past. The first fully recognisable work in the genre of Congress history is M. K. Gandhi’s own Hind Swaraj (Indian Home Rule), written in 1909 on a boat back to South Africa after a visit to London.
Gandhi is quite clear that India was always one nation, and that: ‘it was because we were one nation that [the British] were able to establish one kingdom. Subsequently they divided us’ (Chapter 9). The most interesting part of Gandhi’s views comes in Chapter 10, where he directly addresses the relationship between the British presence and Hindu-Muslim relations. Hindu-Muslim ‘inborn enmity’ is just a ‘phrase’, he says, ‘invented by our mutual enemy’, i.e. the British. Hindus and Muslims ‘have long since ceased to fight’, he says, and furthermore ‘we did not cease to fight only after British occupation’. Both parties had decided to live in peace long before that, and it was only with the advent of foreign rule that the quarrels recommenced. Hostility reappeared because of ‘the presence of the railways, of the lawyers and of the doctors’, all of which were British introductions. As for nationalism: ‘If the Hindus believe that India should be peopled only by Hindus, they are living in dreamland’, and the same went for Muslims too. Nations absorb; there are as many religions as individuals, but ‘those who are conscious of the spirit of nationality do not interfere with one another’s religion’. ‘In no part of the world are one nationality and one religion synonymous terms; nor has it ever been so in India’.
Much of what Gandhi said through the book was rather more ‘Hindu’ than Nehru’s preferred positions, and this is why the label ‘Nehruvian’ better describes the later Congress school. Nevertheless on the main points they were in agreement, primarily that Hindu-Muslim hostility was a fiction and that India’s main problem was British rule. This was a coherent and pleasing picture and the idea of India as a unified entity held together well, until directly threatened by Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s ‘Two-Nation Theory’ with its demand for Pakistan. Faced with this challenge, the Congress line hardened up.
A series of lectures given in 1943 by Humayun Kabir, under the title Our Heritage, occupy an important position in this development. The lectures were subsequently published as a book in 1946, entitled The Indian Heritage, and dedicated to Jawaharlal Nehru – still not yet Prime Minister of India – whom Kabir explicitly compares to Ashoka and Akbar. Kabir was secretary to senior Congressman Maulana Azad, and his opinions are impeccably Nehruvian. ‘The Mussalman no doubt fought the Hindu in medieval India. The fight was scarcely ever, if at all, fought over religious or communal issues’ (1955 ed, p. 61). ‘Religious questions rarely entered into the minds of the rival protagonists’ (p. 62). The question, for Kabir, was one of a fusion of cultures, not the absorption of one by the other. The book carried an additional introductory summation of India’s political history, which laid out in concise form all the main Congress points. Our knowledge of the ancient Aryans is ‘sketchy’ (p. 2); in the time of Harsha and Pulakeshin ‘neither socially nor politically was there a national feeling’ (p. 11); ‘it was the love of wealth and power, not the message of religion, that brought the first Muslim invaders to India’, while struggles between rulers in the mediaeval period ‘had little relation to religion’ (p. 15); Babur had a ‘humane and tolerant attitude’ (p. 17). Kabir says three important things about Akbar: he elevated tolerance ‘to a principle of sovereignty’, he made ‘the first conscious attempt to formulate the conception of the Secular State’, and he can ‘in many ways’ be ‘regarded as the creator of modern India’ (p. 18).
Nehru himself produced the centrepiece of the whole enterprise, his Discovery of India, published in 1946 but written in prison between 1942-45. This is a difficult book to summarise because it contains personal memoir, speculative philosophy and broad views of history, all with a highly individual slant. It reveals Nehru as a less original thinker than Gandhi, but ultimately as rather more influential on modern Indian politics. Gandhi had a strong sense of the sacred involved with his conception of India, which Nehru definitely lacked. For Nehru, India is an ‘odd mixture of many races’, with memories that ‘go back to the dawn of history’. Is there ‘an Indian dream’? He does not know, but he detects a definite pattern in Indian history. He sees in India an openness to change, a balance between long unbroken continuity and an appetite for the challenge of modernity. This is exemplified by India’s reaction to both Muslim and British invasions. Islam arrived when India was old, tired and static, so that new ideas of social equality refreshed the cultural dimension within India. Similarly the British brought modern science, along with superior political and military organisation. The problem with the British was not the structure they built but the fact that it was the British, not Indians, that were running it. Under British rule India was a ‘slave nation’, and because the middle classes were too much the product of the British structure to overthrow it, leaders like himself had to step forward to do the work.
India has an obvious outward diversity, but Nehru was determined to see some kind of broad, less visible unity within the nation. This is one of his least convincing sorties into the genesis of modern Indian nationalism, and he never quite makes it clear where this higher loyalty was actually coming from. But he finds an early version of it under the Guptas in the fourth century CE. He is happier to see it after the arrival of Islam reversed the cultural decay and exhaustion of India, and particularly after a new synthesis had been created under Akbar. It was then Aurangzeb’s desire to ‘put back the clock’ and dismantle this new understanding that destroyed the Mughal Empire.
The main point here is that Indian nationalism proper is not allowed to have existed before the Mughals, and that therefore Indian nationalism must include a Muslim component. Finally, he declares that: ‘Nearly all our major problems to-day have grown up during British rule and as a direct result of British policy’ (p. 284), but there is hope. India, for Nehru, is a nation bound together by ‘invisible threads’, which is no disadvantage: the powerful nations of the modern world are ‘multi-national’ entities, like the USA and the USSR. Modern national feeling has now arrived and the nation is ready to move forward alone and, most importantly, free. Indian nationalism is compound and healthy, and it excludes religious distinctions.
This line of thinking, shorn of its original political purpose, has come down to the present day in the works of historians such as Romila Thapar, who have an instinctive dislike and suspicion of communal analyses of Indian history. There are clear similarities between passages in Nehru’s Discovery of India and Thapar’s Penguin History of India: Part 1 (1966), particularly about purdah, Arab inquisitiveness, north Indian intellectual stagnation, Ramananda, Kabir, Nanak and Amir Khusrau. Thapar is less keen than Nehru to see nationalism and more willing to see religious differences, but they agree on point after point using the same illustrations and very similar vocabulary. Nehru, who remained Prime Minister from Independence through to his death in 1964, really did set up a template for the modern account of India’s encounter with Islam.
The third strand of modern Indian historiography is the school of Hindu Greatness. This was mainly founded on the work of three British writers, who wished to give ancient India her due, but who were unintentionally inaccurate in the history they wrote. The first was Sir William Jones, who was impressed by both the quantity and quality of ancient Sanskrit literature. However, his enthusiasm – and ignorance of ancient history – led him into several influential errors. For instance, he was convinced that the Devnagri script in which Sanskrit was written was the ancestor of all Western Asian alphabetic systems. In this conviction he was completely wrong. Then came Captain Francis Wilford (1761-1822), whose findings called into question the Biblical and Classical chronologies then accepted in the West. Wilford thought he had found direct references in the Padma Purana to the Biblical story of Noah and his three sons, and to Britain (Albion), the White Island or sveta dvipa. These discoveries did much to promote the idea of a far-flung Sanskrit-Vedic presence across the ancient world. However, he realised by around 1805 that he had been fooled by an Indian translator who had been a little too eager to please. Wilford paid this unnamed scholar to read the original texts, having told him what to look for, or rather what he hoped to find. The pundit then helpfully obliged – by means of forgery.
But the English scholar who did most for ancient Indian world domination was Edward Pococke, whose India in Greece; Truth in Mythology (1852) broke new ground. It copied, fairly closely, the methods being used at the time by Max Müller in comparative philology, but Pococke pushed them a lot further, driven by a determination to prove that Sanskrit could be transformed into Greek by systematic rules, and that the ancient Greeks themselves were really Indians. This ‘fact’ was proved by examination of Greek mythology, which, if read literally, revealed much of their ancient history, all of which pointed, according to Pococke, to Indian origins.
Almost nothing now seems to be known about Pococke, but his status as an over-motivated amateur is displayed all through the book, from the Preface to its copious Appendices. On the title page he gives himself no other dignity than that of ‘Esquire’, from which we can probably assume that he was not the holder of a university degree. Nor was the book commissioned as a scholarly project; there is a rather sad dedication to the great Oxford Sanskritist, Horace H. Wilson – the man who commissioned Max Müller’s work on the Rig Veda – whom Pococke had evidently only ever met once, ‘at a casual interview’. It gets worse. Pococke alludes to the accepted method of ancient comparative philology, the search for ‘allusions’ between words, but he specifically rejects this approach, because the search for ‘affinities only’ has ‘barred the path to decisive results’. By this he means that no one had yet been truly confident about making definitive statements in ancient philology. He is determined to supply this lack and rejects any confinement to ‘affinities or etymologies’. ‘That which I am writing is HISTORY: history as marvellously as it is correctly preserved’ – in the myths and legends of the ancient Greeks (p. 5, emphasis in original). Here is the ‘truth in mythology’ promised in the book’s title.
Caution is a stranger to what follows, which is the revelation that the Greeks were Indians and that place-names all over ancient Greece were really Sanskrit words. Examples occur all through the book, but the proof of this is contained in Appendix XX (p. 395-6), which contains twenty-six ‘Rules’ for the conversion of Sanskrit into Greek. These, unfortunately, are peppered with words like ‘often’, ‘very frequently’ and ‘generally’, which rather devalues their worth as ‘rules’. Meanwhile he allows that ‘consonants assume a great latitude of appearance’. In sum, what Pococke provided was a way for him to transliterate, to his own satisfaction, the place names most central to his thesis. He certainly did not provide a systematic way by which Sanskrit could be turned into ancient Greek; he merely gave himself permission to see what he wanted to see whenever he needed to see it – in the occasional individual word. It’s all rather tenuous, as Corinthus is revealed as Cor’ Indus, Bharat is Brutii (in Italy) and one of the ancient names for the Greeks, Pelasgi, is deemed certain to come from Pelasa in Bihar.
Some Indian writers still take Pococke terribly seriously, apparently unaware of what might be politely called his ‘non-standard’ approach. His book, with a Foreword by Dr Ravi Prakash Arya, has just been republished by The Indian Foundation for Vedic Science under the title Indian Origin of Greece and Ancient World. The book gives its ‘Christian’ publication date rather tentatively as ‘c. 2003’, but it is much less vague in recording its full Brahma Era year as 15,50,21,97,29,49,105. News has apparently travelled slowly that the whole idea of Greek as ‘Sanskrit descended’ has been repeatedly rejected, disproved and discredited on a number of irrefutable grounds. One is lack of sufficient historical time, but others include analysis of the deeper structure of the language, something that Pococke did not approach in any way. Taking superficial readings of individual words in ancient languages, and regarding myth, legend and history as one unified whole are techniques that were abandoned only a few years after Pococke wrote, largely because they produce inconsistent, contradictory, and even absurd results.
Nevertheless it is to Pococke that the whole ‘Aryans-out-of-India’ thesis can be traced within English writing. His work has been the basis for pretty well everything written on this subject since. Internet ‘researchers’ love him. Pococke’s mistakes gate-crashed the debate early on and have never left. He is a litmus test: if a writer mentions him then they probably fall on one side of the boundary that marks out wishful thinking from historical scholarship.
After Pococke’s time, Indians inevitably began to involve themselves in the writing of their own history, an activity that could not be denied them, even if they were unable to participate in their own government. This absence of political rights must surely have lent the plunge into history an extra sweetness. Even if unable to participate fully in India’s present, writers could still take comfort in reordering her distant past.
The Arya Samaj changed popular Hindu self-definition from the 1870s onwards; Swami Dayananda, its founder and leader, was unapologetic about his understanding of ancient history – that human beings were first created in Tibet, and that ancient Hindus then spread out to rule the world. This he knew from scripture and direct revelation. The whole ‘Back to the Vedas’ approach of the Arya Samaj was a backward-facing reaction to the profound cultural changes that were under way at this time, for by the late nineteenth century there were educated individuals in India who were hungry for self-realisation, comfortable writing in English, and wanted their opinions to reach a national audience.
Other, less mystical approaches to India’s distant past soon emerged, producing a stream of writing that reassessed and glorified India’s ancient wisdom, much of it from men with training in western science. These works therefore represented a rather different strand of ‘Hindu’ thought from that of revivalists or reformers like Dayananda Saraswati or Vivekananda. The objective suddenly was not to defend Hindu religion against Christianity, but actively to promote Hindu science against western science. Pramatha Nath Bose (1855-1934), a trained geologist, opened up a whole new field with A History of Hindu Civilization (1896), which was unapologetic in its praise of ancient Hindu knowledge and achievements. At roughly the same time Kishori Lal Sarkar launched into a series of books on a similar theme, beginning with The Hindu System Of Moral Science (1895), which he followed with a number of other works on spiritual and artistic topics. An even more ‘rational’ approach was taken by Prafulla Chandra Ray (1861-1944), who combed ancient texts for ancient ‘scientific’ insights. His groundbreaking History of Hindu Chemistry appeared in two volumes, in 1902 and 1908.
The ideas in these works were finally combined with those of Pococke by Har Bilas Sarda (1867-1955), who in 1906 published Hindu Superiority: an attempt to determine the position of the Hindu race in the scale of nations. This title immediately excused readers from having to plough through the rest of the book, because the first two words rather gave away the plot. It also directly, if inadvertently, opened the question as to whether Hindus were a ‘race’ or a ‘nation’.
In the book Sarda sets out the whole ‘Hindu world order’ package. The Assyrians were Hindus, as were the Greeks and virtually everyone else. Ancient Hindus ran the world. Arjuna conquered the Americas, having got there by steamers and balloons, designed on ‘scientific principles’ (p. 190-1). Rome was really Rama. The word ‘Greek’ (graikos) comes from Grahia in India – their original home (p. 164); the Pelasgi – Pelasa link reappears. Pococke is given respect and credit, though there is a hint that Sarda was at least aware of Pococke’s questionable status as an authority, because he explicitly defends him against the ‘windy criticism of ignorant critics’ (p. 162). As for foreign invaders, India’s weakness in Sarda’s view has always been disunity. She was never conquered, she was only ever ‘betrayed by her own sons’. Indians invented firearms and flying machines, and had arrows that came back to the archer, if they missed (p. 354). Vedic Hindus had microscopes and all sorts of other technology. They were superior in arts, science, commerce, bravery, philosophy, spiritual knowledge and all achievements of all kinds. Sarda was quite satisfied with the way his findings all fitted together, and he boasted the support of many British authorities – Elphinstone on the courage of the Hindus, Tod and Wilford on the ancient Indian world empire, Jones on the primacy of the Indian script, Professor H. H. Wilson on firearms in the Ramayana, and Pococke whenever he needed him.
Basically Sarda’s book outlines the whole mythic structure underlying modern Hindutva, with the familiar supporting evidence and arguments. Down to today only two things have changed. Firstly, the Harappan civilisation was discovered in the 1920s, leading on to a whole series of controversies on which Sarda, perforce, was silent. Secondly, perhaps depressed by colonial rule, Sarda was gloomy about the future. He admitted that the glories of the Hindus were in the past; their civilisation ‘has admittedly seen its best days’ (p. xxx). Nevertheless, the ancient Hindus ‘were the greatest nation that has yet flourished on this earth’ (p. xxix), a hint, twenty-nine pages in, that the Hindus were not in fact a race but a nation.
The next development was the arrival of mass politics in the 1920s and particularly the Muslim Khilafat campaign of 1920-22. The Hindu school responded, under the inspiration of V. D. Savarkar and later M. S. Golwalkar (Guruji). A more modern and rational gloss was added to the basic ideas of Hindu primacy, especially as the discovery and excavation of Mohenjo Daro put renewed fire into the debate about the origins of the ancient Vedic Aryans. Golwalkar’s 1939 book We, Our Nationhood Defined attracted criticism for its apparent admiration of Hitler, but his defenders are keen to point out that his concerns were cultural and not racial, and that he wished to assimilate Muslims within Indian culture, unlike Hitler, who wished to de-assimilate Germany’s assimilated Jews.
However, these years were not propitious for causes that were exclusively Hindu; the dominance of Congress, the Second World War, the arrival of Independence, and the assassination of Gandhi muted this school. The Nehruvians had their day.
Finally the cause of Hindu Greatness found renewed vigour from the end of the 1970s, as radical Muslim politics appeared in Iran and Afghanistan, and the old Congress national alliance slowly disintegrated, a process finished off in the mid 1980s by Rajiv Gandhi’s attack on vested interests, corruption and ‘cliques’ within the party. Rajiv appears to have misunderstood the true nature of the Congress he had inherited, and he ended up like the boy whose bicycle fell apart when he cleaned it, because the dirt was the only thing holding it together. The vacuum left by the decline of Congress was filled by the formation of the BJP, and its electoral success prompted a new output of assertive Hindu nationalist writing. Sarda’s doubts were gone; the future was suddenly bright. There was no further compromise to be made with the West, and particularly not with the Muslims, who if anything were now worse than their medieval forebears.
This is where we are today. Western scholars still write extensively about India in all periods, while nationalists of the Hindutva movement concentrate on temple destruction in the Middle Ages – in order to graft fanaticism and atrocities onto present-day Muslims – and on Harappa, in an attempt to identify the Harappans with the Aryans, and thus unify ancient India and insulate her from outside influences.
So while post-colonial guilt and an embarrassed self-consciousness have infected much of the liberal west, sobering it into a less triumphalist attitude, in India an open sense of outrage, loss and humiliation has fuelled the Hindutva ‘national spirit’, which has overcompensated in the other direction. Instead of being pushed back from a connected world-view, as chastened liberals have been, militant Hindus have enthusiastically moved into one, and have no qualms at all about colonising the entire ancient world and hijacking, monopolising and redefining its culture.
At present there are a few examples of what might be termed ‘non-aligned’ writers in the field, who are trying to produce dispassionate accounts of India’s development. But the mere fact that they are having to overturn other, previous accounts makes the point. Writers such as Sunil Khilnani and B. R. Nanda have come closer to a Congress political position than any other, while Tirthankar Roy is specifically rejecting nationalist-era certainties in his attempt to view India’s economic development in a less polemic manner. The fact remains that ‘popular’ Indian history is still written in highly coloured and emotive terms.
Over the last century there have been three main schools with three widely differing views. How close are any of them to the truth? Human fallibility and incomplete information ensure that no history can ever be wholly unbiased or beyond criticism, or entirely, definitively right. This does not mean, however, that some history cannot be plain wrong. History can be as wrong as people can be wrong. And certainly versions of history that are based on nationalistic or religious views, are often wrong. Having started with artificial, judgmental categorisations or subdivisions of humanity, they then proceed, blind to their own biases and all too ready to confirm their initial prejudices.
Bad history springs from the willingness to grant oneself a licence to select evidence, trace invisible chains of causation, and to attribute evil designs to some men and not others. Nationalistic and/or religious convictions easily grant anyone such a licence. Under such influence, it is no longer true that seeing is believing; in terms of history, believing very much determines what you see.