History Matters

By Anjum Altaf

The member-secretary of the Indian Council of Historical Research resigned from his post last month without completing his term. Amongst his major concerns was the ‘changing of textbooks’: “The simplification and dumbing down of history in order to support many of the unfortunate stereotypes that circulate in society is something to be worried about.”

This controversy raises its head in India from time to time but at least meets vociferous opposition from many professional historians. In Pakistan, the manipulation of textbooks has long been completed and accepted without much protest perhaps because by now the country is bereft of historians. K.K. Aziz wrote The Murder of History: A Critique of History Textbooks Used in Pakistan in 1993 and nothing much has changed since. Later examinations such as The Subtle Subversion: The State of Curricula and Textbooks in Pakistan released in 2003 confirm the perpetuation of major distortions and biases.

Attempts to manipulate history by the state to serve parochial interests is taken for granted at least in South Asia. It is up to civil society to contest such manipulations and civil society has been more vigilant in some countries than in others. While there is always a contestation in India, whether or not it is fully successful, one gets the sense that in Pakistan the distortions have now become owned by many academics, opinion-makers, and the public alike.

The more surprising dimension of this phenomenon is the conscious or unconscious elisions and oversights by individuals otherwise known for their awareness of history. Recently I received an email from an Indian reader with regard to an observation by the respected Pakistani columnist Huma Yusuf. In a recent column (Treasures of Islam) she had reported on a visit to the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto. As part of her observations, she wrote: “The museum holds one of the oldest surviving copies of Ibn Sina’s Qanun, which aggregated medical knowledge from the Muslim, Greco-Roman and Chinese worlds.”

The Indian reader sent the following email:

I read an article by Huma Yusuf in Dawn on a museum in Toronto that showcases achievements from the Muslim world. Ms. Yusuf mentioned Ibn Sina’s famous ‘The Canon of Medicine’ saying that it was brought together from Muslim, Greco-Roman and Chinese sources.

But it is well established that the writings of Sushruta and Charaka were among the primary references for Ibn Sina and he credits Indian sources for many of the medications and drugs he lists.

Why do you think Ms. Yusuf failed to mention the Indian sources?

I am unable to answer the question because I don’t know Huma Yusuf personally though I have heard from many that she is not a prejudiced person. My guess is that she is like most people these days who know of these texts second-hand not having read the originals or any commentary on the originals. So, she might just be unaware of the primary references and reported what she read in the entry at the museum. That would be the generous explanation for the omission. If she has deliberately ignored the Indian references, it would be inexcusable.

I found even more surprising a claim by Professor Amartya Sen in a recent commentary on the travails of Nalanda University at the hands of the Modi government (India: The Stormy Revival of an International University). While the historical demise of Nalanda was not germane to Professors Sen’s argument, he described it in very categorical terms:

After more than seven hundred years of successful teaching, Nalanda was destroyed in the 1190s by invading armies from West Asia, which also demolished the other universities in Bihar. The first attack, it is widely believed, was led by the ruthless Turkic conqueror Bakhtiyar Khilji, whose armies devastated many cities and settlements in North India. All the teachers and monks in Nalanda were killed and much of the campus was razed to the ground. Special care was taken to demolish the beautiful statues of Buddha and other Buddhist figures that were spread across the campus. The library—a nine-story building containing thousands of manuscripts—is reputed to have burned for three days.

Much academic work on Nalanda attributes its decay to a combination of factors: the decline of Buddhism, the resurgence of devotional Hinduism much like its present incarnation, disagreements between different Buddhist sects, and Muslim incursions. There are records that Nalanda was destroyed earlier at least twice – by the Huns under Mihirikula (455-467 CE) and by the Gaudas (606-648 CE). Both time it was rebuilt. By the time of Khilji’s attack Buddhism was in steep decline and no patronage was available for restoration. It is also recorded that the Saivite ruler Shashanka (590-626 CE) destroyed many Buddhist images nearby as well as cutting down the sacred Bodhi tree.

Given the above, it would seem historically accurate to state that the causes of the decline and destruction of Nalanda were multiple and contested without in any way minimizing the contribution of the Turks.

Ironically, the reason this matters is because of Professor Sen’s impeccable record for objectivity in the description of historical and contemporary events which is evident even in the article on Nalanda. Just because of that many who do not have time for research would quote him as the final word on this event in history. Given Professor Sen’s record, I can only presume that because the decline of Nalanda was not central to his argument its mention was telescoped to the point that it lost its nuances.

Credible authorities like Professor Sen and writers like Huma Yusuf shape opinions that have a huge bearing on public discourse. As one who participates in South Asian discussion forums I am well aware of the innumerable comments that would cite such claims as evidence to support parochial objectives. For this reason alone, we need our public intellectuals to be extra careful in their observations even when these are not central to the main themes of their writings.

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  • Fiaz Khan
    Posted at 06:14h, 13 July Reply

    History in Pakistan and India has been made synonymous with national identity which in both cases means making a fabricated narrative in order to perpetuate an ideology. The study of History in a scientific manner is not only discouraged but also become taboo.

    When as a student in the History department of Peshawar University I noticed this happening. The CSS syllabus for Pakistan Studies has a book ‘Struggle for Pakistan’ authored by Ishtiaq Hussein Qureshi in its recommended reading list. Among many other fabrications it states that the Muslims of India are descended from the offspring of Arab traders on the west coast of India, and elsewhere I presume. This is compulsory reading. Using any other source in the exam gets you low marks. The Indo-Pak history paper is just as bad which is why I ended up taking European history.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 23:17h, 15 July

      Fiaz Sahib: I believe things have become worse since you appeared for the CSS exam. Now Islam has been added to the mix. I have some students attending academies to prepare for the CSS exam. From what they tell me is being taught, it is nothing short of indoctrination. And the threat of getting poor marks for any deviance is forcing students to go along with what is being ‘taught.’ Most believe they will ditch the nonsense once they are through but something is clearly rubbing off judging by the outcomes.

      As Bertrand Russell said, only a few survive their education. You were smart enough to see through the fabrications and switch to something more innocuous.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 06:50h, 17 July Reply

    “according to the ancient and immutable Hindu caste system.” – From Alice Albinia’s ‘Empires of the Indus’

    Inequality is the soul and philosophy of Hinduism. – United Dalit Students Forum (JNU)

    Hinduism is a deeply hierarchical, oppressive religion. – Nivedita Menon (JNU)

    I hope the readers of this blog reflect on how the producers of knowledge have created an intellectual environment where such a sweeping and devastating statements can be made about a particular religion. I am not arguing for curtailing free speech, or demanding a moratorium on critiques of religion.

    Our understanding of the ‘caste system’ was based on colonial biases and contingencies just like our understanding of Hindu-Muslim relations. We know a lot better now thanks to Susan Bayly and Nicholas Dirks. From a thoroughly cited paragraph in wikipedia,

    “Although the varnas and jatis have pre-modern origins, the caste system as it exists today is the result of developments in the Islamic rule (1200-1500 CE), and over the British colonial regime in India. This period saw the rise of powerful men who associated themselves with kings, priests and ascetics, affirming the regal and martial form of the caste ideal, and it also reshaped many apparently casteless social groups into differentiated caste communities. The British Raj furthered this development, making rigid caste organisation a central mechanism of administration. Between 1860 and 1920, the British segregated Indians by caste, granting administrative jobs and senior appointments only to the upper castes.”

    All this work has happened in Western academia. Seeing the attitudes of people at Indian universities like JNU one can see why.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 20:19h, 18 July

      One might speculate how such a regime of knowledge was established. I feel that the roots of inserting the ‘caste system’ as an essential feature of Hinduism were laid in the colonial era, just like the fabricated ‘Hindu-Muslim’ animosity.

      In colonized societies, the political exigencies of the colonizers steered the production of knowledge, mainly carried out by the colonizers or entities aligned with the colonizers, towards such limited and flawed understandings of the colonized population’s history.

      I would encourage readers (especially those that have claimed that stratification is sanctioned by Hindu ‘scriptures’ and why more Hindus did not convert) to see this passage from wikipedia (it is amply referenced and stable),

      It is this regime of knowledge which now the Hindu right is trying to disestablish, it remains to be seen if it will succeed and whether it will be able to create a more neutral/balanced knowledge production regime.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 00:05h, 28 July

      Vikram: This needs to be a serious academic discussion which moves beyond Wikipedia. Who are the credible academics from the Hindu right with new narratives – not Rajiv Malhotra.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 02:14h, 28 July

      There are none. This is the big issue. The current right wing in India is very much a product of colonial induced shame of self and hatred of the other.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 02:14h, 28 July

      none -> none that I know of

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 23:59h, 27 July

      Vikram: Think about this. You have individuals with global reputation and credibility on one side of the proposition and Wikipedia on the other. Which side can be taken more seriously. The least you could have done was cite Naipaul in your support although it is always better to have experts on the subject matter be the witnesses.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 02:12h, 28 July

      SA, here are the sources which discuss caste as a category constructed in the colonial era:

      de Zwart, Frank (July 2000), “The Logic of Affirmative Action: Caste, Class and Quotas in India”, Acta Sociologica 43 (3): 235–249

      Bayly, Susan (2001), Caste, Society and Politics in India from the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-26434-1

      St. John, Ian (2012), The Making of the Raj: India Under the East India Company, ABC-CLIO, ISBN 978-1-84645-014-3

      Dirks, Nicholas B. (2001), Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of New India, ISBN 978-0-691-08895-2

      Dirks, Nicholas B. (2006), The Scandal of Empire: India and the creation of imperial Britain, Harvard University Press, ISBN 978-0-67403-426-6

      The most important references are those from Dirks and Bayly. I can provide quotes from these references if need be.

      Regarding Hindu texts and caste, here are references for the claim that the ‘Purusha Sukta’, supposedly the ancient basis for the ‘caste system’, but is now accepted as most scholars of dubious authencity and a charter myth.

      Jamison, Stephanie et al. (2014). The Rigveda : the earliest religious poetry of India. Oxford University Press. pp. 57–58. ISBN 978-0-19-937018-4.

      Here are references to Patrick Olivelle and other folks’s work which points out that no Hindu text mentions untouchability and that the colonial scholars greatly misrepresented the notions of purity present in such texts,

      Gupta, Dipankar (2000), Interrogating Caste: Understanding hierarchy & difference in Indian society, Penguin Books, ISBN 978-0-14029-706-5

      Olivelle, Patrick (2008). Chapter 9. Caste and Purity in Collected essays. Firenze, Italy: Firenze University Press. pp. 240–241. ISBN 978-88-8453-729-4.

      Olivelle, Patrick (1998). “Caste and Purity: A Study in the Language of the Dharma Literature”. Contribution to Indian Sociology 32 (2): 189–216.

      Not only this the post colonial school has comprehensively critiqued the colonial one,

      Ganguly, Debjani (2005). Caste, colonialism and counter-modernity: notes on a postcolonial hermeneutics of caste. Routledge. pp. 5–10. ISBN 978-0-415-54435-1.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 23:23h, 28 July Reply

    “You have individuals with global reputation and credibility on one side of the proposition”

    I find this statement strange. Reputation and credibility matter when it comes to facts, not arguments and positions. There were (and indeed are) plenty of ‘reputed’ scholars who have supported racist theories.

    I would also like to know who decides who has global reputation and who doesnt.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 14:17h, 31 July

      Vikram: You have this completely wrong. Facts are facts – it is the arguments and positions that vary and it is there that reputation and credibility matter.

      It is fact that Somnath was destroyed – nobody doubts that – but the explanations for the event vary across the spectrum. Foe example, Romila Thapar has written a book based on contemporary records. Then there are others who have the ‘bloody Muslims’ explanation. Which explanation is more robust? That is where credibility of the proponent comes in.

      Credibility is built on the basis of peer review and acceptance by academic societies. Just look up the honors awarded to Professor Thapar. It would really be a stretch to accuse all the bodies of being anti-Indian or anti-Hindu.

      It is true that reputed scholars supported racist theories but their positions were shown to be without basis by other scholars not by Wikipedia. Now there are are very few reputed scholars who put forth racist theories. Here again, there is no disagreement on the fact that people differ in skin color. The disagreement was in the arguments about the implications of the differences.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 14:20h, 31 July

      I am only referring to the obtaining of facts. Since we cant go and check facts ourselves, we have to rely on credible sources to agree on them. And I am not using wikipedia to argue against scholars, I am only using to point to sources.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 16:17h, 30 July Reply

    Vikram: I forwarded your comments on the construction of caste to Professor Dipankar Gupta whose work you cited in your list. His response is copied below:

    Begin Quote

    The argument forwarded by some western scholars that caste today is an outcome of Muslim and British presence in India is vacuous. Caste in operation is sensitive to all kinds of social influences and it changed a lot in pre Mughal times too. The rise of Rajputs, the effect of the Gujara Pratihara period demonstrate this as does the efforts of even somebody like the king of Bengal, Ballal Sen. While on the subject, why not look at the impact Chandragupta Maurya had on caste.

    On the other hand, if one were to make the strong argument that Indians, like dumb driven cattle, were corralled in caste groupings by the British, then that argument is simply wrong. This point of view is not just preposterous, but gives to colonialism much to much heft than it deserves.

    True, British elevated Brahmans over Marathas, Thevars, Marawas, Jats, etc, because they wanted pliant pen pushers, an uniform textual basis to the bewildering world around them in India, but also to put local martial powers in their place. The Brahman emerged as a force from then on and this was resented by the powerful castes of the day leading to many non Brahman (but not non caste) movements.

    What neither the Mughals nor the British invented was the essential caste ideology which says that there are bodily differences between people. This belief is profoundly ingrained and is based on a notion of substances too minute to be noticed by themselves, other than in their aggregation.

    This ideology is hierarchical, for nobody would ever admit that their essential bodily substances are inferior to those of anybody else. This is true of all cultural identities across the world. Even the near Stone Age San people of the Kalahari desert think that they are the best.

    What is overlooked in all of this is rather unfortunate, especially in terms of scholarship which then has political implications. First, even the poorest castes, including the ex Untouchables, believe they are intrinsically, i.e., in terms of bodily substances, superior to all others. In their opinion, if they have been suppressed today it is because of chicanery, lost wars or on account of mercurial and idiosyncratic gods.

    So the essence of caste ideology lives across the board. Jotiba Phule, considered to be the greatest 19th century reformer of “lower” castes, felt that way too. Therefore, this caste ideology has been there from very early times and you only need to look at the Vedas where much of this is spelt out.

    What is ignored in all of this written down stuff is that hierarchies are constantly in conflict. If one hierarchy triumphs at any one point it is because those at the top of this hierarchical rendition, have won economic and political power. In medieval years this meant that the carriers of alternative hierarchical formulations had to submit themselves to this rule but continued to grumble quietly in their hamlets and gatherings.

    This is not unusual as medieval peace rested on the principle that winners, first and foremost, take all and then they may think in terms of noblesse oblige. That last feature is not compulsory, hence “oblige”. If the subjugated behaved themselves, the chances of generosity from above would be that much greater.

    You can see alternative hierarchies clashing throughout pre Mughal India. The difference between those wars, or philippics, and the expression of discontent over hierarchies today, rests on the fact that in the past, obeying medieval terms of engagement, these occurred episodically and not routinely as they do now.

    If caste conflict that you see around you is so routine, it is because there is the modern law that allows alternative hierarchies to be publicly articulated. Much as we resent colonial rule, it is the British that first made this possible and “low” caste leaders of the 1920s, like Swami Acchyutanand, acknowledged this.

    So caste hierarchies have never been stable but the ideology behind, namely, of bodily substances, has. Unlike the written word of other major religions, in Hindu texts this ideology is accepted and even approved of. Secondly, caste is the most finely grained system of stratification where minor differences matter the most. In this sense it differs from race where one is white or black on account of a major phenotype variation.

    Also, you must read some Indian authors on this subject. I have also written about this and for that you may refer to my book, “Interrogating Caste” and my piece in the Review of Anthropology.

    Sadly, neither Bayly nor Dirks can defend themselves in front of an Indian audience, particularly, in JNU. In Dirks favour I would say that in his earlier book,”The Hollow Crown” he had a great argument, defended aptly with historic illustrations. In this book he shows that in tradition (note, tradition) the warrior, or kingly, principle was more important than the Brahmanical one.

    What prompted him then to write his second book (Caste of Mind), I don’t know. The “Hollow Crown” clearly shows the Kshatriya principle at work, and in dominance, well before the British. Bayly’s work on this subject suffers from the same flaw but is not as felicitously presented.

    Finally, there is a great categorical misunderstanding that, paradoxically, has made caste studies so popular. If you were to go by the textual readings of caste, it would seem that all others submit to Brahmans willingly. In the words of a well known, but naive (even Orientalist) American anthropologist, the lower caste “participate in their own subjugation”. This makes Hindus an exceptional species and, therefore, they cannot be understood by universalist concepts.

    Hindus are thus converted Into a unique species for nowhere else would people happily accept that their substances are indeed inferior. It is this abnormality that has spurred caste studies. But the moment you “normalise” Hindus you will find that hierarchies have always being disputed.

    In the past, these surfaced after long historical breaks, but today, on account of modern law, such disputes can happen all the time. I have detailed this aspect too in the chapter, “Caste and Politics”. This might dispel all residual misunderstandings that those studying the virulence in caste politics today may have.

    End Quote

    • Vikram
      Posted at 14:51h, 31 July

      “Credibility is built on the basis of peer review and acceptance by academic societies.”

      If this is indeed the case, then the work of Dirks and Bayly has been accepted by far more researchers than that of Gupta, and has been cited many more times.

      Then by your position itself (which I personally dont agree with), Dr. Gupta’s response carries little weight.

      I only cited him because he pointed out that the Vedas and other Hindu texts do not mention untouchability. Given his amusing response, that was a mistake.

      Perhaps, Mikael Aktor would have been a better reference for this claim,
      Mikael Aktor (2002). “Rules of untouchability in ancient and medieval law books: Householders, competence, and inauspiciousness”. International Journal of Hindu Studies 6 (3): 244, 243–274.

      The basic points are:
      1) The Vedas and Upanishads contain no reference to untouchability
      2) In the smriti texts, the phenomenon of temporary impurity at first applied to all members of a society (for eg: someone who had just defecated would be impure), and was developed in the context of being able to perform social intercourse and religious rites
      3) These rules were later modified to specifically outcaste certain groups and tribes to maintain a large unskilled labor force

      Also, you might want to consult Dr. Pratap Mehta, and ask him whether the fact that “Dirks and Bayly could not defend themselves in front of a JNU audience” adds to their credibility, or diminishes it.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 19:15h, 21 October
  • Vikram
    Posted at 21:30h, 18 August Reply

    “True, British elevated Brahmans over Marathas, Thevars, Marawas, Jats, etc, because they wanted pliant pen pushers”

    Dipankar Gupta is a professor at Shiv Nadar university, and one wonders what the wisdom of giving such a position to someone who holds such racist and degrading views about a community.

    This comment and the subsequent exchange at Kafila should reveal a lot about places like JNU to SA,

    It is untenable to hold a position that knowledge production and scholarship is apolitical. It is in fact, among the most political things out there.

  • Sohail Kizilbash
    Posted at 20:40h, 14 September Reply

    Interesting discussion. It seems that historians can never agree on ‘facts’ as the sources give such conflicting accounts.

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