Search
Close this search box.
,

From An Historian’s Notebook: The Emperor Vanishes

That’s the basic problem: we identify ‘our’ heroes in the past, and identify our present and future with lessons we apparently draw from them. That’s
Mughal dynasty and school textbook history
Bookmark (0)

No account yet? Register

Column recap:

Iron Rules of History
Russian Lullaby
The Uses of Exile
Putin & Bengali Cold War 
Imperialism in One Country?
Scratches on the Record
The Progressive Bookseller

The 18th Brumaire of Isaac Asimov
Identity and Vegetables

Straw Men

Joys of Parochial Self-effacement

How To Be A Person With A Voice

Will The Woke People Please Get Out Of My Hair

In January this year, I did a high-school class at a school in the city formerly known as Calcutta. Afterwards, over tea, two of the school’s history-teachers were discussing curriculum change: they’d been to a publisher’s meeting at which new textbooks were discussed, and the publisher’s representative had told them that they’d soon have less Mughal history to teach. This heads-up meant that it was no surprise, to me at least, and to many school-teachers, that the deletion of much of the Mughal history curriculum in the country still known as India came so soon. That the Mughals, whose history as a dynasty is bound up in a very complicated relationship with religious authority and theology, not to mention lineage, as befits a regime living among and ruling a very diverse population, have come to stand in for ‘Muslims’, past, present, and future, is ironic; but irony belongs to the pre-postcolonial world. 

Commentators have pointed out that the jokes about the Rajputs having struggled valiantly against an invisible enemy are missing the point: the use of the Mughals as a shadowy foe against which to showcase ‘indigenous’ valour is more important than to erase the Mughals entirely, which is why they will have a vestigial afterglow in the doctored historical consciousness of Bharatavarsa, as shadowy villains to be resisted and then vanquished by virile Hindutva supermen. This comic-book history, whose childhood we remember from our childhood in the form of the Amar Chitra Katha comics we uncritically read, invites an even less complicated identification mechanism from us today than its predecessor form. ‘The only answer to this politically deformed take on India’s past and present’, wrote a critic whose work I take very seriously, ‘is to work at writing histories in which Indians of every sort can recognise themselves.’[1]

Rajput war painting
Valiant Rajputs rising against Mughals is a popular discourse

Not at all. That’s the basic problem: we identify ‘our’ heroes in the past, and identify our present and future with lessons we apparently draw from them. That’s religious hermeneutics, at best: it’s bad history, and even worse politics. And it’s been the basis of history education in India before and since independence: the Nehruvian proclamations of state, via its first education minister, Maulana Azad, assumed that accurate history would reaffirm a proper story of national belonging and solidarity, in which Indians of every sort could recognise themselves. But it’s very hard for an individual writer projecting himself onto a collective consciousness to be an Indian of every sort, or even any sort of anything of every sort: individuals cannot write the universal history of the collective, in and for the past, present, and future. Only God, who knew a little more than mortal writers, could do that. Then why does the nation-state imagine it can succeed? ‘We must have a history; we must write our own history’: thus spake Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, beloved of the Bengali bhadralok whose autocritique he voiced (one could even claim that Bankim’s self-ironic auto denigration prefigured what we might today call ‘critical whiteness’, except that he wasn’t white). The struggle over the ‘we’ has now proceeded for generations: the centenarian ex-Stalinist Ranajit Guha called the subalternist army to arms with Bankim’s war-cry; it was somewhat inconvenient that Bankimbabu’s ‘we’ needed the Muslims to play the enemy in his self-staged vicarious valour, projected into a primitive past of militant monks, with whom his modern-day Hindu hero could identify. 

Commentators have pointed out that the jokes about the Rajputs having struggled valiantly against an invisible enemy are missing the point: the use of the Mughals as a shadowy foe against which to showcase ‘indigenous’ valour is more important than to erase the Mughals entirely, which is why they will have a vestigial afterglow in the doctored historical consciousness of Bharatavarsa, as shadowy villains to be resisted and then vanquished by virile Hindutva supermen.

After Bankim, and before his resurrection, there were the Marxists; but they seem to have made the same mistake of allowing communities to identify with ‘their’ predecessors from the past. Aligarh historians, given the task of producing secularised histories of ‘their’ specialist period, resorted to a mixture of reductive materialism (instances of apparent religious intolerance could all be explained by the Realpolitik of political or financial gain) and the attribution of intention (we know why historical actors made the decisions they did). Ideological issues (the ulama’s wishes; the legitimising necessity of having a relevant imam read the khutba in the Emperor’s name) were not even given enough of a superstructural role. It does not require us to ask whether they were right or wrong for it to be clear that the acknowledgment of ‘Muslim’ discrimination or bigotry against ‘Hindus’ in the past was not to be contemplated, for it would have justified retaliation in the present or future: they were writing histories in which no ‘communalist’ of any description could recognise themselves. It was also in consonance with official Indian state policy to make ‘minorities’ feel less threatened. But no one questioned the idea that history was about ‘recognising themselves’ in it. As long as the story was told right, so the argument went, by left-minded and professional historians, there would be no trouble ‘writing histories in which Indians of every sort can recognise themselves’. 

sepoy mutiny
Political narratives are endemic part of politics in India

Small wonder, then, that disputes over historical narratives, and particularly the narratives taught to children to internalise as part of their training in civic belonging to the nation-state, have been an endemic part of political life in India. These disputes happen in many states, of course; but the Indian state is particularly insistent that the only viable unit of historical consciousness ends at the boundaries of India-that-is-Bharat. If ‘Indians of every sort can recognise themselves’, does it matter if any sort of un-Indian cannot begin to recognise what is going on? And, this being the case, disputes about the telling of history, in an age that has lost its confidence in adjudicating between different versions of history, since there isn’t a truth any more, have revolved either around including more people in the narrative who had been previously excluded (caste or regional groups who had ‘contributed’ to the 1857 revolt, for instance), or whose narratives had been less than satisfactorily told for their own sentiments to remain unhurt (the Jats or Marathas as marauders and looters; the Rajputs as warriors whose reliance on bhang-induced valour made them vulnerable to any tactically-astute enemy general); or around exclusion (which is more the matter under discussion here – less narratives about Mughal statecraft gives us less to admire in a political order that has to be designated as one of evil Muslim invaders). These historical disputes have, at least, shown one thing: history is worth disputing at length, and all the stories of how ‘the humanities’ have lost their relevance and are impractical cannot begin to make sense in a scenario where the erasure of histories in which Indians of some sort can recognise themselves enhances the histories of Indians of another sort, and indeed justifies in the present and future the dominance of one sort of Indian over another. History is, in a not-too-distanced sense, the father of the lynch mob. And some historians, who are busy rewriting these purpose-driven histories, can claim paternity in a more direct, less abstract sense.

What if histories had been written in which human beings of every description could recognise themselves, but no one in particular could recognise themselves? Would that have been too abstract, too ‘humanistic’? History at school is an exercise in nationalist indoctrination, and that changes very little in the histories taught at university level thereafter, so this is a hypothetical situation; but it is at least possible that a focus on the complexities of human interaction, in which there were no clear indications as to whose predecessors were the heroes of whatever histories we were studying, nor that we expected to be the heirs to particular histories or historical outcomes. Yes, of course, that would also mean that the sort of collective outrage that the Shashi Tharoors of the global South can elicit by demanding the homecoming of, say, the Kohinoor diamond, as symbolic apology or recompense for years of colonial depredation to which we can claim to be heirs, would not be plausible. (After the erasure of Shah Jahan and the declaration of the Taj Mahal, after the Indian National Army soldier and RSS ideologue PN Oak’s infamous theory, to be a Hindu temple, it would be hard to find anyone who could tell the story of the famous Peacock Throne’s post-Mughal fate and the crowning moment of a fragment of it finding its way into Her Britannic Majesty’s ceremonial head-covering, anyway.) History would not belong to anyone; it would be a way of critically engaging with the human predicament in different contexts, and even if this meant that no one was ‘writing histories in which Indians of every sort can recognise themselves’, maybe this wouldn’t matter. The other way would be to continue to possess versions of history as a group, and to be possessed by those histories.

 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of thespace.ink or its editorial team members. 

 

Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Notes:

  1. Mukul Kesavan reporting on the erasure of the Mughals from school textbooks: https://www.telegraphindia.com/opinion/maiming-india-the-regimes-mimicry-of-pakistan-in-rewriting-indias-history/cid/1929997 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of thespace.ink or its editorial team members. 

Benjamin Zachariah works at the Georg Eckert Institute for Educational Media in Braunschweig, and with the project on the contemporary history of historiography at the University of Trier. He was trained in the discipline of history in the last decade of the previous century. After an uneventful beginning to a perfectly normal academic career, he began to take an interest in the importance of history outside the circle of professional historians, and the destruction of the profession by the profession. He is interested in the writing and teaching of history and the place of history in the public domain.

Weekly Newsletter

Enjoy our flagship newsletter as a digest delivered once a week.

By signing up, you agree to our User Agreement and Privacy Policy & Cookie Statement.

Read More

Subscribe to get newsletter and to save your bookmark