Historical Wrongs

 

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Historical wrongs

Harbans Mukhia  

History-writing has been subject to several
mutations the world over during the past half
century or so. In the context of increasingly
clearer admission that all forms of knowledge
have historically grown through a cumulative,
though not a concerted effort of all humanity;
the creation of historical knowledge in each
region is best seen as a part of evolving
global patterns.

Seen in this perspective, Indian history
writing has witnessed one major transition in
the '50s and '60s and is poised for another in
the '90s. Down to the mid-'50s, most history
writing and teaching was pivoted on ruling
dynasties in ancient and medieval India, and
around viceroys and governors in modern India.
The divisions of ancient, medieval and modern
itself was predicated upon dynastic shifts,
though the terms were first used as late as
1903 by Stanley Lane-Poole: ancient India
ended with AD 712, when Muhammad bin Sam
invaded India and medieval India, with the
death of Aurangzeb in AD 1707.

Two elements shaped thisperspective: the
dominant inherited frame of history-writing in
India's medieval centuries, and the dominant
assumption everywhere that history was the
creation of great deeds of great men.The age
old view that ancient Indians had no sense of
history has been ably contested by V.S. Pathak
and A.K. Warder in the '60s and '70s and by
Romila Thapar in the '90s. Warder, following
``a really solid piece of constructive
research, at last'' by Pathak, affirms the
existence of a historiographical tradition
from the Vedic to the medieval times, and
Thapar traces the evolution of several strands
of historical consciousness in early India and
reconstructs the social context of each.

The medieval centuries, however, posited an
altogether different conception of history.
The large number of court chronicles written
in India in the Persian language envisioned
history essentially as manifestation of human
will, especially the ruler's will. The
religious element also entered as a
constituent of the ruler's nature. Thus
theevents of a reign manifest the ruler's
personality. Hence, Alauddin Khalji conquered
the Deccan because of his ambitious nature;
Muhammad bin Tughlaq ended up a failure as
ruler because his nature consisted of
contradictory qualities; Akbar was tolerant
towards the Hindus, for such was his nature
and Aurangzeb was intolerant because of his
natural religious dogmatism. This stands in
contrast with medieval European
historiography, where divine will is the sole
cause of the occurrence of historical events.
This is understandable: medieval Ind-ian
historians were all courtiers with varying
shades of commitment to Islam; European
historians were all ecclesiasts and saw
history in unshaded theological colours.

The historical vision in general everywhere
also centred on rulers, battles, empires and
administration until very recent times. It was
in protest against this approach that Marc
Bloch and Lucien Febvre founded the celebrated
French journal, Annales, in 1929 in search of
``a total history''. In the '30sand '40s,
dynastic history was giving way to a
comprehensive social and economic history.
This was a major shift.

This shift came to Indian historiography
substantively with the publication of D.D.
Kosambi's An Introduction to the Study of
Indian History in 1956. Kosambi, by profession
a mathematician, was an assertive Marxist and
the book altered the terms of historical
discourse to class structure, class conflict,
social and economic transformation. From the
mid-'50s to around mid-'80s, the historical
problematics centred on one or another aspect
of this paradigm. And, very significant
contributions were made to it by Irfan Habib
and R.S. Sharma, among others, with their
publications in 1963 and 1965. This was also
the age of the growing influence of Marxism in
intellectual endeavour as well as political
and social spheres everywhere, for it was the
age of Fidel Castro and Che Gueva ra, Vietnam
and Ho Chi Minh. This was the age when an
alternative vision of societal transformation
pervaded the air.

Inthe 1990s, things have moved a long way off
from that vision and have brought history
writing to yet another threshold. Once again
newer problematics are being constituted: the
history of ecology, of time and space, women,
interpersonal relationships, perceptions and
images, and so forth. This is happening in the
community of historians around the world. It
is, therefore, a sign of life among
professional Indian historians that they have
been sensitive and responsive to the waves of
change in the constitution of historical
knowledge, looking at it increasingly as a
very complex rather than a monocausal process.
Religion too finds a place in this complexity.

Indian historiography has not only received
these waves of knowledge but also contributed
to them. The very fact of rewriting Indian
history is a major contribution, for it alters
perspectives on other parts of world history.
But, more specifically, subaltern
historiography in India is the object of
respect and source of inspiration for many
such studiesin several other parts of the
world and one does not have to be a
subalternist oneself to appreciate this.

If history-writing then is a living rather
than a dead discipline, sensitive to nuances,
complexities and developing perspectives, to
view it exclusively as the story of religious
combat and to view any complex explanation as
a conspiracy of a few leftist historians who
came to positions of power and thus propagated
their false historiography is a charming
demonstration of simplicity itself. Indeed,
when the Marxist threshold in history writing
was crossed, its father-figure, D.D. Kosambi
would not touch any government patronage with
a barge pole; Nurul Hasan was not the minister
of education, nor Satish Chandra the UGC
chairman; nor had the ICHR yet been
established. At any rate to reduce all these
awesome changes in history writing everywhere
in the world to the conspiracy of the leftists
in India amounts to both looking at
intellectual creativity simply as the result
of state patronage andattributing to the State
and the leftists an amount of power far beyond
their capability.

To be fair, such few professional historians
as the BJP has in its camp have seldom
levelled these charges at least in public.
They leave this task to the likes of Sita Ram
Goel who, one learns, does full time business
for profit and part time history for pleasure,
and Arun Shourie who, too, one learns, does
journalism for a living, specialising in the
investigation of non-BJP persons' scandals and
revelling in the discussion of virginity and
hymens and has recently taken to proclaiming
himself the historian and everyone else as
``historians''. Good luck to them.

The writer is a professor of medieval history,
JNU

Source: INDIAN EXPRESS Friday, November 27, 1998

Copyright 1998 Indian Express Newspapers
(Bombay) Ltd
.

 

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Last updated: February 23, 2000 .