Shaheryar Ali

There has been an interesting debate going on in the pages of PakTea House e-zine regarding Indian history. This debate is also at the heart of the “history wars” which are  going on in India and Pakistan. In Pakistan it has acquired a specific character because , a version of  communal historiography had to be adopted to built “Pakistani Nationalism”.

When a nation state was to be built on Muslim identity and Muslim separatism, it had to rely on a version of history which starts with Muslim invaders, all the debates in such form of history revolve around a particular community, in this case “Muslims”. It is supposed that somehow that community was always “separate”, “distinct” and somewhat independent of other people this community was living with. This type of history is just self-serving; it lives and thrives on a particular kind of politics. This communal or as thesedays its fashionable to call it “nationalist” politics, Hindu nationalist and Muslim nationalist politics. For this type of politics, history is just a tool to justify the contemporary politics with ancient events.

It therefore becomes important to demolish a historical structure, like Babri Mosque, as a symbol of “national revival”, correcting the “historical wrongs”, avenging the so called  Muslim colonialism. No one bothers , how many temples in India were demolished by Hindu rulers and how many mosques were demolished by Mujahid rulers. [Aurangzeb for example closed down the Shia Mosques in Hyderabad, and converted the main Imam bargahinto a horse stable, or Mahmood of Ghazni’s loot of mosques in Multan, which belonged to different sects]. Here Turkish invasion and Arab invasion of India becomes “Muslim Invasion”. The fact again finds no audience that Arabs fought along with locals against Turks in many towns.

This kind of history and politics is always monolithic, mythological, passionate, a-historical and in extreme cases anti-historical and absolutist. It sees every thing in black and white, all history in India as a perpetual struggle between Hindus and Muslims.  A case of mythological flight of Ideas, can be seen in Pakistan, where date of creation of Pakistan was debated amongst so-called historians, “Pakistan came into being , the day first Muslim landed in India [or converted]. This is the extreme mythological thinking, which defies knowledge, logic, rationalism, common sense. It’s this mentality by which every Muslim household in Dehli, Gujrat, Mysore becomes Pakistan, thus a target of violence for Hindu nationalists. The Indian Muslim who is killed , is a Pakistani. Than we listen to shouts of “Musalmano ke du isthan, Pakistan ya Qabristan.”

Extensions of this thought are visible in Pakistani Patriotism as well, As Jamil Alli says:

Pakistan ka sehri tha mein Pakistan se Pehle bhi—

This is the extreme a-historic and segregationist view of Pakistan. Sindh becomes “bab-ul-Islam”, owing to Arab imperialist invader Muhammed bin Qasim, equating Islam essentially with violence and conquest. The same mindset , ironically engages in passionate debate when Hindu right raises the question of invasions and forced conversions. Their mythological mindset doesn’t see the logical contradiction in their view of making Sindh “bab-ul-Islam” and than denying invasion related spread of Islam.

As this view is “segregationist” it doesn’t accept the Sufi thought, which is humanist and anti-communalist. In Pakistani text books, Wahdat-ul-wajood becomes heresy. Mysticism becomes “bidat”.

Depending on the modern sensibility of such communal mind set Pakistan becomes either a “Laboratory of Islam” or “Mumlikat e Khudadad”, “the divine state” or “Islam ka Qila”, “Fort of Islam”.

The communal historical tradition is extremely selective in its reading, it doesn’t adopts a critical view of the primary sources. As Romila Thapar , one of the most respected historian of India notes, that the “communal historiography” is essentially a “colonial historiography”.

“The colonial interpretation was carefully developed through the nineteenth century. By 1823, the History of British India written by James Mill was available and widely read. This was the hegemonic text in which Mill periodised Indian history into three periods – Hindu civilization, Muslim civilization and the British period. These were accepted largely without question and we have lived with this periodisation for almost two hundred years. Although it was challenged in the last fifty years by various historians writing on India, it is now being reinforced again”

Roma Thapar: History as Politics.

Dr Thaparcontinues, her analysis of communal historiography and later its utilization by Hindu and Moslem nationalists, or communalists. She asserts:

“These were religion-based national groups for whom the identity of an independent nation-state was to derive from the religion of the majority community in the proposed state. Religion-based nationalism, whether Hindu or Muslim, drew directly from the colonial interpretation of Indian history and catered to the ambitions of a section of the Indian middle-class.It projected imagined uniform, monolithic religious communities and gave them a political reality. There was an entwining of communal historiography and religious nationalism. Muslim nationalism aspired to and eventually succeeded in establishing Pakistan. Hindu nationalism is aspiring to make India into a Hindu Rashtra. The two-nation theory was essential to both the Muslim League and the Hindu Mahasabha in the early twentieth century. It continues to be essential to the communal movements of today. These nationalisms were not primarily anti-colonial. They accepted the colonial views of the past and what they were opposed to was the other religious community”

Romila Thapar, History as Politics.

Liberal versions, of this communal mindset exist in both India and Pakistan, the disagreement with fanatics is merely aesthetic, and is representative of the “internal conflict” of the “middle class” base of this type of Nationalism. The liberal card is basically used in terms of “democracy”, “nationalism”, “cultural nationalism” and even “secularism”. Thus we see Hindutava becoming “secular” in name of “Indian nationalism or Hindu nationalism”. We see LK Advani’spassionate defence of Jinnah’s secularism. A farce in history is abuse of democracy in such debates where in discussions of pre-partition India , terms like Hindu majority and Moslem minority were created. The same issue of “religion based” majority are used in India and Pakistan, in issues eg repealing Hadood laws etc. All this is done in name of “Majority is democracy”. Thapar notes:

“The undermining of democracy today lies in insisting that Indian society is constituted of communities identified only by religion.Since in a democracy the wishes of the majority prevail, it is said that the Hindus being the majority community in terms of numbers, should determine public decisions. This of course makes a mockery of democracy, since a democratic majority is not a pre-determined majority and decisions can and do cut across identities of religion and other identities. It is also a refusal to concede that actually Indian society in the past had multiple identities – of caste and social hierarchy, of occupation, of language, of religious sect and of region. Religion was only one amongst these. The focus of each identity was dependent on the issue in question”

Romila Thapar, History as Politics.

So as we see that once again all of it can be narrowed down to “identity”. Using religion as “identity”, we have seen this basically was a British construction, and through the modernist it seeped into Indian middle class. No one tries to be critical and trace the history of social construction of “Hindu” and “Muslim” identities. Hindu and Muslim are considered “monolithic” groups, homogeneous and in perpetual conflict. A detailed historical analysis will reveal that both theseterms have no meaning at all, Hinduit self has been understood as different things, there was no “monolithic Hindu religion” or Hindu culture” in India. As Romila Thapar notes:

“Despite its initial geographic and ethnic meanings, the term Hindu finally settled as the name of a religion. It has been argued that the early religions of India were essentially religions of orthopraxy of conservative ritual practice, rather than orthodoxy, of conservative belief. Religion in India was a mosaic of juxtaposed cults and sects”


“There was no single label by which they described themselves and they were identified as Vaishnava, Shaiva, Shakta, Lingayat and so on. Belief ranged from animism to the most sophisticated philosophy”

Same thing is true for Muslims, who in India were a very pluralistic thing. The Arabs, Turks, Afghan, etc, often with conflicting interest. Despite the colonial and communal interpretation of history, Majority of Indian Muslims were never outsiders, only elite section of Muslims could be traced to Afghan or Persian, or Arabic roots, majority of Muslims were converts whose interests remained same as their brothers in class. untilthe colonial times when Hindu and Muslim middle class were pushed into a struggle of survival in case of “colonial employments”.

Romila Thapar notes:

This view was further reinforced in the colonial theory that the Muslims of India were foreign and alien. The subject was treated as if Muslims were – one and all – migrants, all claiming descent from the Arabs, Turks, Afghans, Mongols and what have you, who settled in India. This may have held true for a fraction of the elite, but as we know the vast majority of Muslims was Hindus converted to Islam.The few claims to an origin beyond the frontiers of the sub-continent were more often claims to status rather than a statement of ethnic origins. The regional and linguistic variations among Muslims in India gave riseto many cultural and sectarian differences that militated against a uniform, monolithic religious community. Groups labelled as Hindu were also treated as if they were identical and conformed to a single, homogeneous culture”

Romila Thapar, History as Politics.

The religious identity, faded away in non elitist sections of society as Thapar notes:

“The conquest and the resistance were more frequently over territory, political power and status. Religion was not the dominating factor as is clear from studies of these epics. The fading away of formal religious boundaries was particularly evident in the non-elite sections of society – in effect, the majority of the people. But their religion was regarded as inferior and set aside, even by historians. What earlier historians failed to emphasize was that conversion is seldom a break with the previous way of life. It invariably carries many of the culture ways of the earlier identities”

How other identities are more important than the religious identity is once again described by Romila Thapar, explaining the phenomenon of conversions and refuting the Hidutuva’s myth of forcefulconversion, she explains how “class character” was base of such conversions and , this character never changed despite changing of religion:

But what is of interest is that where a caste converted, it generally retained its rules of marriage, custom and some rituals and continued to have professional relationships with Hindu castes. When weavers in some North Indian towns converted to Islam, they continued their earlier relationship with Hindu textile merchants. Prior to their conversion they were anyway regarded as low caste and the traders maintained a social distance, and this distance remained.

In defence of History, Romila Thapar

To be continued—