In 2016, as a response to the unrest on campus that triggered countrywide debate, the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) Teachers’ Association organized a lecture series to explore the trajectory of nationalism. Thapar, emeritus professor of history at JNU and renowned historian, spoke of the connection between history and nationalism. In her talk titled ‘The Past as Seen in Ideologies Claiming to Be Nationalist’, she explains why the political requirements of today cannot be imposed on the history of the past.
I am delighted to be here on this occasion, having been invited to participate in the teach-in on nationalism. When I come to JNU these days, I feel a bit like a dinosaur – having been one among the founding generation of teachers.
Now, let me come to something that is much more topical – and that is the connection between history and nationalism. Nationalism emerges as a concept or an idea in modern times as a response to historical changes. It is difficult to locate it in pre-modern societies. So, we don’t look for nationalism in the centuries long past, we look for it when society changes to the point where it is required.
But let me turn to the Indian situation. The evolution of nationalist ideas in India was tied to colonialism. Therefore, the influence of the colonial interpretation of Indian history is present in all kinds of nationalism to a lesser or a greater degree. In pre-colonial times there were multiple identities of caste, language, religious sects and regions. Religious identities, I would like to argue, were not based on large monolithic religions but on a range of religious sects. In sum, we now recognize that diversity characterized Indian cultures. Up to a point, it can be said that modern anti-colonial nationalism drew the diversities together.
However, we cannot stop there, because if diversity is characteristic, the next question is: How did diverse groups negotiate their space and their relationships? This is a fundamental question where some explore these relationships whereas others project a single identity, argue that it is the identity of the majority and should therefore have priority. Let’s look at how this came about.
The colonial reading of Indian history denied the diversity of India.
There were no histories, of course, of India as a unified territory prior to colonial rule. Colonial history tried to tidy up the diversity, not by asking how these diversities related to each other, but by envisioning all religions in India as large monolithic religions and fitting the sects into one or the other, instead of seeing them as autonomous or only partially allied to another religion. Colonial scholars dramatized the confrontation of what they called the Hindu religion and the Muslim religion in order to support the two-nation theory, required by colonial policy. Relationships between religious groups are never so simple.
The two-nation theory persisted, and was strengthened by the introduction of the concept of the majority community and minority communities after the British Indian census. It divided Indians and encouraged Indians into thinking about their identity as distinct, consolidated, monolithic religious identities. This suited colonial policy and therefore was encouraged.
In the mid-nineteenth century, European philology became interested in Vedic Sanskrit and its links with Indo-European languages. Many philologists and Sanskritists, such as Friedrich Max Müller and others, projected the idea that the Vedic corpus, authored by the Aryans, was the foundation of Indian civilization. The history of the origin of the Aryans and their innate superiority became an important aspect of colonial scholarship and of nationalist historians. It was popularized, initially by the theosophist Colonel Olcott. He maintained that not only were the Aryans indigenous to India, but that they also migrated westwards and eventually civilized the West. This was useful in projecting the idea that India has always had a singular history, of which the most important has been that of the ancient Hindus.
Various theories were put about on the origins of the Aryans. Max Müller said they came from Central Asia; Dayanand Saraswati preferred Tibet. Tilak, as we all know, was much more adventurous in suggesting the Arctic regions. When it became fashionable in the 1920s and ’30s to talk about the Aryans being indigenous to India, it was a little embarrassing to have Tilak placing them in the Arctic. So someone had the bright idea of saying that in those days the North Pole was actually located in Bihar. Various Indo-European languages, from Sanskrit to Celtic, were said to be of the same language family. It was assumed that those who spoke the same language were biologically related.
One may well ask why there was the need to project an indigenous descent for the Aryans. It was important to the theory that there was a direct link between the Aryans and the upper-caste Hindus that followed generation after generation up until present times. Max Müller in England and Keshab Chandra Sen in India argued that since both the British and the upper-caste Indians were Aryans, they were all eventually kin- related and, therefore, were like ‘parted cousins’ now coming together.
This theory met with an obstacle in the 1920s with the discovery of the Indus Valley civilization, or the Harappa culture as it is also called. This was prior to the Aryans and it was not Vedic. Therefore, this had now to be the foundation of Indian civilization. This, naturally, created a problem for those who believe that Vedic Aryanism is the foundation. That is one reason why today, some archaeologists and Sanskritists are trying to take the dates of the Vedas back to pre-Harappan times. Newspaper reports have stated that attempts are being made to take it back at least to 7500 bc. But the other problem is the unknown origin of the Harappans and that their language remains undeciphered. It’s much simpler now to maintain that the Harappans were also Aryans. There were many archaeological cultures in the subcontinent, so were they all Aryans?
How do these ideas and problems connect to the question of nationalism? By the late nineteenth century, there was an established middle class in India. The idea of nationalism began to emerge from this group. So, once again it is the particular historical situation in modern times that leads to the emergence of nationalist ideas. At first, the nationalists requested greater representation in governance and then gradually, as we all know, it grew into a mass movement, and the mass movement then finally ended up demanding an independent nation, which was a logical outcome. Anti-colonial nationalism endorsed the idea of a nation and defined it as a democracy with a secular, egalitarian society. This anti-colonial nationalism maintained that the primary identity of all citizens was being Indian, irrespective of whatever identities they may have claimed prior to this. Being Indian was an overarching and inclusive identity incorporating people of all religions, castes and languages on an equal basis with equal rights, and this is the central component for what was originally projected as secular, anti-colonial Indian nationalism. This was a new identity obviously, and was seen and projected as such.
But, given the history that was written by colonial scholarship and taught to the colonials by the colonizer – the fundamentals of which had not been fully challenged – there inevitably arose two kinds of what some people call ‘religious nationalisms’, and some people prefer to call (them)’ communalisms’ – the Hindu and the Muslim – and some may even refer to them as ‘pseudo-nationalisms’. Both endorsed the old, British two-nation theory. One aimed at establishing a separate Islamic state and managed to establish Pakistan; the other aimed at uniting the subcontinent under Hindu rule – what was to become the idea of the Hindu rashtra. Unlike anti-colonial secular nationalism that was inclusive of all as equals, for these communal ideologies, those of their own religion had priority, and to that extent these nationalisms were exclusive. They were not anti-colonial – some of them regarding the colonial power as their patron. Their hostility was towards each other.
These views were basic to the two organizations that propagated these ideas: the Muslim League and the Hindu Mahasabha. The latter was gradually superseded by the RSS, and later there emerged a conglomeration of organizations referred to as the Sangh Parivar.
As with all nationalisms of all kinds, Hindu religious nationalism also turned to history. But interestingly, it appropriated the two dominant colonial theories – the Aryan foundation of Indian civilization and the two-nation theory. These they now describe as the indigenous history of India. Ironically, it is claimed that these histories are cleansed of the cultural pollution of Indian historians influenced by Western ideas! That their own ideas are rooted in colonial theories is conveniently ignored.
The core of this ideology is the identity of the Hindu. The Hindu is the only one who can claim the territory of British India as the land of his ancestry – pitribhumi, and the land of his religion – punyabhumi. Muslims and Christians are described as foreigners since they came from outside the territory of British India and their religions originated in other lands. The ancestors of the Hindu and his religion having been indigenous to India, he, therefore, is the primary citizen. The true claimants to the ancient civilization can only be Hindus, descendants of the Aryans, and this is one reason why it has to be proved that the Aryans were indigenous to India, irrespective of whether they were or not. Being indigenous, they are the inheritors of the land. There are, however, glitches in this argument. Those of us who have pointed out the problems get our daily dose of abuse on the internet, and we are described as ignorant JNU professors and worse, even if in fact most are not from JNU.
The point that I am trying to make is that the reading and interpretation of the past requires a trained understanding of the sources and a sensitivity to understanding what has been written. The political requirements of today cannot be imposed on the history of the past. To maintain a generalized statement that the period of the last thousand years was one of the victimization and enslavement of the Hindus by the Muslims is historically unacceptable. This kind of generalization feeds communal nationalism. That is why I am cautioning against it. Unfounded generalizations have to be replaced by analytical history.
This excerpt from ‘Inquilab: A Decade Of Protests’, with a foreword by Swara Bhasker, has been published with permission from HarperCollins India.
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