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Page  1  of  7

Getting to know the past better


By Romila Thapar


Historian Romila Thapar

(Keynote address at the inauguration of the Karachi International Book
Fair on December 7, 2005)
 

Over fifty years ago, at the time of independence and just after, we inherited a long tradition of historical writing. There were two perspectives on history that constituted our heritage: one was the colonial view of Indian history, and the other was the nationalist view. The colonial view was the one in which, first of all, an attempt had been made to periodize Indian history - to divide it up into different periods. The periodization that took root and was followed by all the earlier historians, was the periodization put forward by James Mill in 1819, when he wrote about three periods: that of Hindu civilization, of Muslim civilization and of the British period. This periodization was based on the religious identity of the dynasties that ruled the subcontinent: Hindu to begin with, succeeded by Muslim dynasties, and ultimately succeeded by the British. It was also based on the assumption that the basic units of Indian society are monolithic, unified religious communities, and that these communities were mutually hostile. This was very much a British colonial view of Indian history and, as we all know, this colonial view was also to influence the politics of the 20th century in the sub-continent.

Another obsession of colonial historical writing was what they called Oriental Despotism: that Asian society, and this includes all the Indian states and societies, were static societies that did not, in fact, undergo any kind of historical change. There was an absence of private property in land, they argued, and since the government was always despotic and oppressive, poverty was endemic. The third aspect was the study of caste, which according to them was based on racial segregation. It was in this study that the Aryan theory of race became central. They argued that caste was rigid and frozen and that there was no social change, no social mobility in Indian society in all the hundreds of years preceding British rule. This history was claimed as enlightenment mhistory but, in fact, it was a history supporting an ideology of colonial dominance.

Indian historians in the late 19th and early 20th century, conforming much more closely to the nationalist view of history, challenged some of these theories. They did not, however, question the periodization. This was to come later. They accepted the periodization of Hindu, Muslim and British, a periodization that we have now rejected. They did question the notion of Oriental Despotism but did not replace it with an alternative theory of governance, administration and rulership. Social history merely repeated the claims made in the normative and prescriptive texts.

This is an important issue in reconsidering history because normative texts such as the Dharmashastras, or the laws of Sharia, or the constitutions of modern nation-states are prescriptive texts. They do not describe reality except obliquely. They set out what they think should be the ultimate goals of society. Therefore, such texts have to be analyzed rather than taken literally. Anyway the nationalist historians did present a counterview, as it were, to much of what was said in colonial historical writing. But the more systematic questioning of existing historical interpretation began among the historians of India in the period after independence, in the 1950s and the 1960s.

There was a drifting away from colonial and nationalist interpretations, and there was a search for other aspects of the past. Many of us at that time as young historians sought for something more authentic, something more exploratory, something that would make us understand the past better.

 

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