The problem

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THE idea of rewriting history is under a cloud. From the discussion that has followed the ICHR move to stop the publication of the Towards Freedom project volumes and the NCERT directive deleting passages from the existing school textbooks, the very notion of rewriting has emerged tainted, as if it inevitably means the play of hidden hands, unrevealed agendas, manipulating minds. This is tragic. For historians, rewriting is a creative act; it is the way history as a mode of knowledge develops. In developing new perspectives historians critique dominant frameworks – their enclosing limits and repressions, their silences and erasures – and rework accepted notions of the past.

The past does not come to us with a unitary truth embedded within it; the facts that historians mine do not ever speak with one single voice. As our perspectives change we look at the past in new ways, reinterpret events, discover new meanings within them, pose new questions that could not even be formulated within the limits of earlier frameworks of analysis. So historians tell different stories of the same past, refigure evidence in diverse ways in the act of rewriting history – an act that enriches our conceptions of the past.

The act of rewriting history itself is not objectionable. But all forms of rewriting are not the same. If rewriting is so integral to the growth of historical knowledge, we need to continuously examine the nature of rewriting: the assumptions that underlie the arguments, the questions that are posed, the mode in which knowledge is authenticated, the structure of the story that is elaborated. And in scrutinizing the process we need to differentiate between ways of rewriting that are legitimate and productive and those that are problematic and intellectually unacceptable.

It is through the practice of rewriting that historians of India have continuously rethought their notions of the past. History in India began its modern career implicated in projects of colonial knowledge. And post-colonial subjects, just as much as historians, have struggled against this legacy – a legacy embedded in the sources that were collected and stored, the institutions of research that were built up, and the colonial conceptions of history that became part of our commonsense.

When researches into India’s past began in the late 18th century and early 19th centuries, Orientalist ideas structured historical representations. Inspired by the romanticism and classicism of the time, Orientalists like William Jones and H.T. Colebrooke returned to the ancient past, discovered its greatness and defined a specific notion of a glorious classical age. It was in this age, so the Orientalists told us, that the essence of Indian civilization – embodied in its language, laws, institutions and religious texts – came into being. Subsequent to this golden age there was a continuous or cyclical decline to a degenerate present before the British rule. If India had to develop, its lost past had to be rediscovered, its essence had to be properly understood, its juridical and religious texts had to be translated and canonized, its poetry had to be recaptured. The Orientalists saw themselves as the mediators who would define this relationship between the past and the present. As codifiers and translators they would be the ones to discover the ancient texts and ascribe to them their true meanings. As researches into ancient texts and projects of translation proliferated, and institutions and journals for Asiatic researches were set up, modern history in its colonial form began to take shape.

By the early 19th century, with liberalism gaining ground, Orientalist histories were questioned from within the fold of imperial thought. If Orientalists had glorified India’s past, the liberals condemned it. From a veneration of classicality we moved to a phase of arrogant deification of modernity. Liberal histories idealized the modern West and the assumed principles of its order – individualism, freedom and democracy. They looked at the past through these overarching categories, searching for their roots and describing the stages of their unfolding. Other societies – of the past and present – were understood and characterized only in terms of the presence and non-presence of liberal values. While Orientalists had discovered in India’s past a succession of golden ages, liberals like James Mill and Thomas Macaulay could see only shades of darkness.

In the West liberal histories traced a series of great transitions – from darkness to light, irrationality to rationality, magic to science, superstition to reason. Modernity had emerged from the age of darkness, through the Renaissance and Enlightenment into the modern age. In India and other ‘dark continents’, as the liberals saw it, this transition never took place. India had remained unchanged, constrained by the social institutions that defined it – caste, village community and Oriental despotism.

For the liberals the dynamism of historical time in the modern West contrasted with the static time of the Orient. This immobility, they underlined, could only be broken with the intervention of an external temporality – the civilizing power of the West. Within the frame of this liberal history, British rule provided the moment of great rupture, when a primitive, static, backward, caste ridden, Oriental despotic society was transformed and modernized in progressive stages through education, rule of law, railways, expansion of the market and diffusion of useful scientific knowledge.

By the late 19th century, imperial representations of Indian history changed yet again. The mutinies in the army, the cycles of peasant rebellions and the anti-colonial stirrings in urban areas, created a profound sense of imperial anxiety. Faced with an inner crisis, liberalism lost its enthusiasm for reform and its moral commitment to the civilizing mission. Histories of India were now cast in frames that underlined the impossibility of change in the East. Structured by racial, climatic and evolutionary theories, historical explanations focused on the innate inferiority of Indians, the degenerative effects of Indian climate and the problems of a diseased landscape. The myth of the lazy native, and the idea of the ‘tropic’ as a debilitating space emerged as framing tropes of historical analysis.

Nationalist histories developed in opposition to imperial and communal frames. But critiques very often remain tied to the frameworks they seek to transcend. Assumptions and terms naturalized by earlier discourses become part of accepted common sense and shape the nature of subsequent reasoning. And when new arguments are framed in terms of these old assumptions, their truth is reinscribed, their taken for granted status is reaffirmed. Purging these ideas, questioning their truth, then becomes a long and complicated intellectual process. In many ways post-colonial intellectuals are still involved in a project that the nationalist intelligentsia initiated.

While the nationalists mounted a critique of colonial ideas, they continued to accept many of the key categories through which imperial representations of Indian society were fashioned. Nineteenth century imperial history had shrouded India’s past in darkness, denuded its history of any evidence of change and achievement, and stamped its people with permanent marks of inferiority. To constitute a sense of self, nationalists returned to the ancient past and rewrote history, identifying golden ages when literature and culture flourished, economy and society developed, territories were unified and law and order were established.

But in critiquing liberal histories, nationalists borrowed from the Orientalists, transforming the founding Orientalist notions of India’s past – the idea of classical golden ages and the corollary myth of a subsequent civilizational decline – into accepted orthodoxies of Indian history. In countering the imperial narrative of progress under British rule, nationalists told a story of colonization, British exploitation and national impoverishment. But they continued to see the 18th as a dark century – a time of chaos and anarchy, internecine wars and breakdown of society. And in looking at the past and present, they operated with western modernist ideas of what constituted progress, and what was to be criticized as primitive, backward and irrational.

Similarly, while struggling against communal representations, nationalist histories operated with a series of communal assumptions. While communalism saw nationalism as the articulation of community interests, nationalists sought to subordinate the language of the community to that of the nation and individual rights. Communal histories filled the past with stories of inter-community conflict and violence, nationalists saw in the past a comforting history of amity and unity. But most nationalist histories continued to periodize pre-colonial history through religious categories. They referred to ancient India as Hindu and medieval India as Muslim – as if a unitary religious essence permeated the entire age and the whole society. They reaffirmed the communal idea of ‘Muslim tyranny’ – an idea that transformed all Muslims into one evil mould, and implicated them all, whether high or low, in the practice of a power that they had little association with.

In the years after independence the battle of frameworks was replayed in new contexts. As professional history matured in India, the secular nationalist vision was articulated within a left-liberal paradigm in opposition to imperial and communal conceptions of history. Against the imperial view that India was not a nation but a conglomerate of discrete castes and communities at war with each other, the nationalists had earlier emphasized the notion of an essential unity beneath diversity, and projected into the ancient past the modern idea of a centralizing nation state, valorizing the processes of territorial expansion and unification of kingdoms.

This question of nationhood remained central to post-colonial reflections, but the terms in which it was conceptualized changed in many ways. Instead of seeing the nation fully formed from ancient times, the history of India was now seen as a process of nation in the making. All social and cultural movements, all reform agendas of the 19th century, were read as part of the wider struggle for modernity and nationhood. Histories of peasant and tribal rebellions merged with histories of nation making, each revolt of the 19th century became a stage in the manifestation of nationality.

This concern with nationhood was reflected at various other levels of historical study. If the Indian nation came into being within the context of colonialism, if Indian nationalism was forged through an anti-colonial movement, then the working of colonialism had to be probed deeper. Building on early nationalist insights, historians in the 1960s and ’70s explored the idea of colonialism within a framework influenced by Marxist debates on modes of production. Colonialism was conceptualized as a specific structure and located within the system of world capitalism; backwardness was seen as a systemic logic, and development under colonialism was shown to be inevitably thwarted and distorted.

While historians of modern India were absorbed in the study of nationalism and colonialism, historians of ancient and medieval India set about dismantling the vast baggage of stereotypes that imperial histories had produced. The ideas of pre-colonial societal stasis, self-sufficient village communities, Oriental Despotism, were all subjected to deconstructive scrutiny. Through these categories the West had constituted an East that was in essence the inverse of the West, a difference that could be understood only through a rhetoric of contrasts that defined two opposed civilizations, one progressive the other primitive. In the West there had been continuous development and growth, India had been static; in the West we see an expansion of market and a process of urbanization, India was a land of self-sufficient village communities where these forces of change could not penetrate; progress in the West was powered by a protestant work ethic, in India it was inhibited by an oppressive caste system; science and rationality modernized the West but failed to develop in India. In the decades after independence, historians struggled against these stereotypes, looking for evidence of money economy, market expansion, urbanization, technological change, agrarian growth and expansion of artisanal production in ancient and medieval pasts.

Within imperial metropolitan centres, decolonization led to another kind of rethinking of the colonial experience. The aggressive imperial voice lost its persuasive power. The new histories that emerged sought to negotiate a position in between the old imperial histories and their new nationalist critiques. This dialogue defined the terms in which the arguments were framed. In opposition to the nationalist valorization of the idea of Indian unity, historians of the Cambridge School (CS) focused on the history of communities, castes and localities. While nationalists traced a long history of harmony and amity between communities, CS pointed to the equally long history of conflict. Nationalists saw colonialism as a moment of great rupture; CS underlined the powerful elements of continuities between pre-colonial and colonial societies. Nationalists emphasized the determining role of imperialism in restructuring Indian society; CS stressed on the shaping power of inner institutions and local situations, on the indigenous roots of colonial transformations. Nationalists conceptualized nationalism as an ideology of anti-imperialism; CS saw it as a site for the play of other interests – caste, community, region, locality and self. While the CS critique was important in pointing to a range of silences in nationalist arguments, it was framed in deeply problematic ways.

By the 1980s history writing in India saw a new phase of dramatic change. Influenced by the new social history in England and the cultural turn in social sciences, Subaltern Studies challenged the elitism of earlier histories that attributed historical agency to the elites and looked at the world from above. Subaltern histories emphasized the need to understand the experiences and lives of the dominated – peasants and workers, tribals and lower castes, women and dalits – people who leave few written records, whose voices are difficult to hear, whose actions appear inconsequential. The cultural turn in history writing all over the world shifted the focus away from economist and reductive reading of historical processes. Power and domination, economy and society, experience of work and leisure, identities and interests, were all seen as culturally constituted. Over the last two decades, ecological histories brought nature in, gender studies made historians sensitive to the masculinist assumptions of existing histories, and histories of discourse refigured the old history of ideas in new ways.

The changes in history writing have thus occurred through intense debates and disputations, conceptual ruptures and shifts in frames. It is this process of dialogue that has dynamized the field of history in the last fifty years after Indian independence, opening up new landscapes of understanding. We have moved from the old history woven around the biography of powerful individuals to explorations of historical processes and structures, from the actions of elites to the lives of the repressed, from grand histories to thick analysis of small events – exploring the macro through the micro, the world through the grain – from masculinist frames to an understanding of the gendered nature of historical experiences, from modernist narratives of progress to critical reflections on the meaning of progress, from celebratory stories of the conquest of nature to a discovery of the complex ways in which human history is linked to nature and culture.

Problems of understanding inevitably remain. Historians continue to grapple with the conceptual premises of their analysis and search for new ways of looking at the past. If the 1950s and ’60s was a period of enchantment with nationalism and modernity, the 1980s and ’90s has been a time of radical disenchantment. Nationalist histories had evolved in opposition to a baggage of imperial ideas; historians today are seeking to go beyond nationalist frames, which (as the essays of Sumit Sarkar and Sivaramakrishnan here demonstrate) have a tendency to absorb all new research within its tight embrace. We need to get away from the unilinear teleologies of nationalism and modernity, their heroic emancipatory narratives. We have to probe their exclusions and open up their totalizing closures.

Rewriting of history is therefore undoubtedly necessary. It is an act that infuses history writing with life and energy. But it is not a project that can be given over to those who seek to destroy the very conditions of its possibility. The political moves to stop the publication of the volumes of the Towards Freedom project, delete passages from the existing NCERT textbooks and to rewrite these texts do not reveal a will to explore new horizons. They are declarations of a war against academic history itself, against the craft of the historian, against the practices that authenticate historical knowledge.

In what sense is history writing under attack? Professional historical scholarship matured in India in the years since independence. The writing of history in a sense became tied to the elaboration of the democratic, liberal, socialist, humanist vision of Nehruvian India. As postcolonial India sought to define its identity in relation to its colonial heritage, historians turned to a critique of imperial narratives and colonial stereotypes of India’s past. With the general consolidation of a humanist intelligentsia in the Nehruvian era, the field of history came to be dominated by left liberals committed to the idea of a secular, democratic society. Through the fifties and sixties the growing hegemony of this intelligentsia was manifest in its control of the cultural institutions of society and their active involvement in fashioning a new public. Moved by the optimism of the age and the urge to provide the children of new India with a post colonial history of India’s past, many of the finest minds plunged into the task of writing textbooks when the NCERT was set up in the mid-sixties.

Yet the strength of this liberal consensus was somewhat illusory. Beneath the intellectual hegemony at the top other forces were at work. A range of alternative narratives of the past undercut the new nationalist history that was taking shape. We see the production of this alternative sensibility at least at three different levels. Partha Chatterjee’s essay in this issue points to one level. As history became professionalized in the 20th century, dominated by academics grounded in the art of archival research, the ‘old social history’ was displaced from academia. While this history was modernist – in the sense that it too sought to authenticate its arguments through reference to archival sources – it was tied to the culture of the region and the community, and implicated in the politics of sectarian conflicts. Dislodged from the academia it continued to flourish outside it.

Beneath this level that Chatterjee discusses there were others. Within the schooling system we see a similar layering of knowledge. The vision of a new Nehruvian India was expressed in the histories produced by the NCERT. Written in opposition to colonial and communal representations of the past, the NCERT texts sought to present a secular nationalist history that focused on our common past, our shared heritage, our collective struggles, foregrounding the bonds that tied the nation together rather than the sectarian and communal strife that tore communities apart.

While these texts were increasingly prescribed all over India, the number of schools that accepted the NCERT system remained small. Out of a total of around 1,25,000 recognized secondary and higher secondary schools in India no more than 6200 schools are at present under the CBSE, though a larger number of schools accept the NCERT syllabus up to class eight. Outside the NCERT system, within schools run by community organizations and political parties, children were being socialized into a different cultural sensibility.

The Saraswati Shishu Mandirs that the Jan Sangh began setting up in the early 1950s proliferated all over the country, the number of schools controlled by the Vidya Bharatis booming to over 4000 by the 1990s. In these shishu mandirs – discussed by Tanika Sarkar in this issue – the nationalist secular history was turned upside down. While the NCERT texts were formally accepted in these schools for the purposes of public examination, a supplementary course on Bharatiya Sanskriti initiated children to the ‘real’ history of India.

In this history, all creativity is traced back to the pre-Muslim past, all glory is discovered in ancient India. From the medieval times follows a long history of Hindu suffering and Muslim oppression. Hindus are inevitably the heroes of this history, Christians and Muslim the embodiment of all that is evil, the enemies of the nation. Hinduism provides the unitary essence of India, and Hindus are its only true citizens. For centuries Hindus had fought against injustice, against the aggression of invaders, and they needed to continue this struggle for freedom to eliminate the stains of the Muslim past.

If the past has been witness to a history of Hindu tolerance and Muslim tyranny, the present requires the Hindus to empower themselves, transcend their effeteness, assert their masculinity and erase the painful history of past wrongs. The call to Hindu assertion here becomes a metaphor for a war against Muslims. In the madrasas, as Nita Kumar shows in her essay, we again see a multiplicity of texts and heterogeneity of teaching. The NCERT texts are accepted for the purposes of examination, but students are initiated to the teachings of Quran, reaffirming the significance of defining their identity in relation to the text. This is particularly so in the madrasas run by the madrasa boards.

Outside the schooling system, in the bazaar, popular tracts on local and national histories circulate another mode of historical knowledge. Cheaply produced and widely read, these tracts, in fact, structure the quality of popular historical sensibility. Many of these tracts are cast in a mythic mode, but they are sites of present sectarian battles. We see seemingly ancient myths refigured to convey communal meanings, and present political projects legitimated through mythic returns to the past. Popular faith and belief, notions of collective hurt and wrong, do not exist frozen in an immemorial time; they do not come down to us with a fixed essence – already formed in the mists of time. They are constituted and refigured through practices of cultural production and modes of socialization, through ideological battles and pedagogic interventions: the nature of teaching, the ideas naturalized through textbooks and circulated through popular tracts. The politics of Ramjanmabhoomi and the nightmare of Gujarat cannot be imagined without the passion and emotion that this structured faith generates.

Symbolic power often breeds a sense of complacency. The iconic status of many left and liberal intellectuals, the international appreciation of the histories they produced, their control over the key academic institutions of society, created a deceptive sense of self-assurance, a false idea of the hegemonic power of secular, nationalist ideals. Events of the last decade and a half have gradually dented this self-confidence of the Nehruvian intelligentsia. Denied academic status and lacking symbolic power, the other ‘histories’ that flourished outside academia, are now questioning the status of academic history, the premises of its knowledge and craft.

In a perverse enactment of the return of the repressed, these other ‘histories’ threaten to arise from their submerged locations, their life in the bazaar and shishu mandirs, and assert their right to power – their right to be patronized by the state, prescribed in the textbooks that children read. Academic historians have for long ignored the reality of these alternate ‘histories’, the logic of their production, the nature of the historical sensibilities they produce. If we have to resist the threat they pose to the practice of academic history, we need to understand these other histories, explore their inner structure and the premises of their popularity. And as Chatterjee emphasizes, we need to think of ways in which creative history writing, as yet confined to the academia, can enter the domain of the popular.

What is this craft of the historian that I see under threat? Academic history writing is emphatically a modern discipline. The history of its growth is intimately linked to the history of modernity – a history that no critique of modernism has been able to transcend. Even the most radical anti-modernist history, I suggest, is profoundly modernist.

In what sense is this so?

Nineteenth century positivism established the discipline of evidence as the foundation of historical truth. Keen to establish a secure basis of knowledge and convinced that science provided the framework of all valid knowledge, positivists sanctified facts and records as the repository of truth; the verifiability of the fact was to guarantee the truth of what was said, its objectivity, its claim to scientific status. It was as if truth was embedded in the records, inhered in the evidence. With the discovery of more and more facts, the reality of the past was to unfold before the historian, part by part. The naive notion of knowledge that underlines this simple positivist formulation has long since been given up. We know now that there is no one truth embedded in records, waiting to be revealed. We can look at evidence in different ways, and reconstruct the past in diverse forms. Historical knowing is a process of selecting, reading, representing, interpreting and narrating. And our ways of narrating define in a sense the reality that is captured in the history that we produce.

Yet, can history get away from this discipline of evidence? If we talk of evidence and record, do we inevitably succumb to the epistemological naivety of positivism? The anti-realist turn and the persuasive power of narrativism and constructionism has created amongst sensitive historians a complicated, ambivalent relationship with a set of binary categories inherited from positivism: fact/fiction, history/myth, truth/falsehood. The old terms of these oppositions can no longer be sustained, the lines of difference as they were perceived earlier have been powerfully critiqued. But can we merge the categories together? I think we need to rethink such categories in new ways, problematizing them, opening them up for scrutiny, refiguring them, without necessarily giving them up. To throw the categories overboard would be to destroy the conceptual possibilities of differentiating between different forms of knowledge. It would be to undermine the very basis of history as a discipline.

Documents and records, purged of their positivist heritage, provide both the possibilities and limits of historical understanding. Historians can enter the past, return to it, and study it only if the past leaves a trace. The trace, as Ricoeur eloquently argues, remains as witness to what has passed away, what once was; it invites us to follow it back, to discover the trail; it directs our search, our quest. If we lose the trail, if the trace is lost, then the past remains hidden, unknown. Traces of the past are inscribed in documents, in records, and are preserved as archives. In this sense history is a mode of knowledge through traces, it is based on documents and archives. ‘If history is a true narrative,’ says Ricoeur, ‘document constitutes its ultimate means of proof. They nourish its claim to being based on facts.’1

The notion of what constitutes document can change, the field of evidence can expand (from inscription to artefacts, written texts to visual/oral records, printed sources to memory), the search for new types of evidence inspired by new ideas and themes of research continues, and documents may be read in conflicting ways. But history remains a discipline of evidence; historical imagination is subject to the constraint of ‘what happened in the past’, a constraint very different to the limits that define fiction and myth as modes of knowledge. The historian has to relate to a pre-figured past – the past gone by, refigure this past through the act of historical understanding, into a configured past – the past of the historian’s narrative. To give up the notion of the trace and the document is to announce the death of history.

That is why we need to be more than wary of efforts to cleanse textbooks, erase evidence of the past, repress uncomfortable traces, or stop the production of an archive of sources that reveals disconcerting realities. When we are told that Aryans were actually the original inhabitants of India, or that the Indus Valley civilization is post-Aryan, or that the Indus people domesticated horses, and that cows were never slaughtered in ancient India, we need to recognize that these claims represent something more than minor disputes over factual details of our past, something more than a conflict over reading and representing evidence. When community sentiments of pain and hurt become the ground on which we rework our past, when we rewrite history to cleanse it of all that we seek to disown, then we are witnessing a practice of rewriting that is disturbingly problematic. These are moves that attack the very discipline of academic history.

Narratives of the past that are freed from the ‘discipline of evidence’, from the constraint of the archive, operate within a framework of knowledge that is not history in the modern sense of the term that we are discussing. Yet we cannot dismiss these narratives. If they are constructed without reference to records, if they fabricate history, we need to understand the nature of that fabrication: the structure of the story that is told, the politics of its production, and the strategies deployed to authenticate the story.

If these accounts repress evidence of the past or invent records, we have to look at the logic of that repression, the meaning of the invention. If these narratives appeal to our mythic imagination, we need to see how these ‘modern myths’, as Ernst Cassirer called them, are distinct from ‘traditional myths’, how they use the language of tradition in instrumental ways to reconstruct the public mind. Several essays in this issue of Seminar address these questions in different ways.

All history is in a sense political. By defining our past, it fashions our identity, our location in the world, our sense of self and the vision of the future. But all writing and rewriting of history is not political in exactly the same sort of way. To the extent that every term we use connotes a world of meaning and every representation of the past is structured by our frames of reference, history can never emancipate itself from the play of subjectivities, from the domain of the political. It can never be purified and sanitized into an unsullied objectivity.

But when history is mobilized for specific political projects and sectarian conflicts, when political and community sentiments of the present begin to define how the past has to be represented – what can be told and what had to be erased, when history is fabricated to constitute a communal sensibility, and a politics of hatred and violence, then we need to sit up and protest. If we do not then the long night of Gujarat will never end. Its history will reappear again and again, not just as nightmare but as relived experience, re-enacted in endless cycles of retribution and revenge, in gory spectacles of blood and death.




1. Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, Vol. III, Part IV, p. 117. Ricoeur helps us reconceptualize the notion of the trace, the document and the archive.