Debates, not deletions


back to issue

‘All history is contemporary history’: so said Benedetto Croce. This has become a cliché, but its implications are well worth spelling out. Croce was arguing that each generation looked at the past from its own perspective. So, the questions they ask of the past, the ways they interpret the past reflect their own concerns and the nature of the times or the society they inhabit. History or the past thus could never become dead or frozen. It was always open to interrogation by the present.

Drawing from Croce, the English historian, E.H. Carr said that history represents a continuous and an unending interaction between the past and the present. Both Croce and Carr – and many other practitioners of the historian’s craft – have seen history or history writing as an interpretative act. These acts of interpretation, however, must be firmly anchored in facts. History is emphatically not fiction even though some of the methods that historians deploy – narrative techniques, the study of human character and motives, the attempt to simulate reality and so on – are similar to what novelists use. History writing is thus inescapably haunted by debates and controversies as each successive generation reflects on the past.

These debates regarding the past cannot escape the influence of politics and ideology. And such influences give to these controversies an emotional charge that isn’t commonly associated with the academic discipline of history writing. The influence of politics and ideology has led not only to the rewriting of history but also to the obliteration or physical removal of selected remains of the past.

When the United Front, led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), came to power for the first time in West Bengal in 1967, it took upon itself the project of removing the statues of British generals and viceroys which stood very prominently in parts of Calcutta. Mrinal Sen captured these removals in his film Interview and made them symbols of an ongoing revolution. The leftists were thus using their ideological opposition to British rule and imperialism to remove physical remains of the past, remains that had memorialized British rule in India.

Around the same time, another group of leftists, activists of the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) in Bengal, beheaded statues of some eminent Bengalis who they considered to be the ‘running dogs of imperialism’ but they never attacked/defaced the statues of the imperial rulers or monuments representing imperial rule. Thus, recent demands to remove statues in Britain, USA, South Africa are not new. It should be noted that in India, especially, there has taken place the memorialization of certain chosen heroes – chosen by the present political dispensation – by erecting statues, in one well known case, a gigantic one. There is also the ongoing project in Delhi to obliterate an important and integral part of the capital and replace it by a Central Vista celebrating the present regime. The past is thus being edited by the present.

These acts of removal, obliteration, new kinds of memorialization, what have you, are underpinned by different interpretations of the past. This essay by using some examples will try and argue that debates and interpretations of the past are necessary but that should not entail the erasure of the past. An obliteration of the past brings about a closure and thus stops the interaction between the past and the present which is the essence of history writing and understanding history.


On 6 December 1992, a momentous event happened. A 16th century mosque known as the Babri Masjid in the town of Ayodhya was destroyed by thousands of sangh parivar activists. The mosque had been built by a courtier of the first Mughal Emperor, Babur, and was named after him. The claim of those who reduced the masjid to rubble was that it had been built on the remains of a temple that commemorated the birthplace of Rama. For Hindu fundamentalists who believed that the Muslim sultans and badshahs who had ruled India from the 13th to the 18th century had systematically victimized Hindus. For them the Babri Masjid was the most prominent symbol of this oppression.

From 1984, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (a wing of the sangh parivar) with the Bharatiya Janata Party started a movement to demolish the mosque and build a temple dedicated to Rama in its place. This movement and the claims it represented initiated a debate among historians and archaeologists. There were two aspects to this debate. One concerned the claim that mosque had been built atop the remains of a Hindu temple. The other was whether the temple/mosque marked the birthplace of Rama. This second question blurred the distinction between myth and history.


Many Hindus believed and continue to believe that Rama of the epic Ramayana was indeed a historical figure, while many others (among them professionally trained historians) expressed their doubts about Rama’s historical existence. They, however, do not deny the richness and the power of the myths associated with Rama especially in North India. In a real sense, it was not possible to resolve this controversy since a large part of it depended on beliefs and not on historical evidence. On the first question, archaeologists and historians set out to discover the facts behind the claims that there were remains of a Hindu temple beneath the structure of the Babri Masjid. This debate was rudely and abruptly brought to a close by the obliteration of the Babri Masjid. Debates among historians and archaeologists were rendered irrelevant and matters took on a legal turn.

In 2019, after a prolonged delay, the Supreme Court pronounced a rather odd and ambiguous verdict that the demolition of the mosque was illegal, but a Rama temple could be built on its site. A piece of history was thus erased and a new piece of history was allowed to be created.

Underlying this dispute regarding a mosque and its demolition there were other issues that continue to be debated. These relate to the nature of Muslim/Mughal rule and the idea of Hindu victimhood. Hindu fundamentalists continue to regard Muslim rulers of India and even ordinary Muslims as ‘outsiders’ using belief in Hinduism (defined in a very narrow sense of the term) as a dividing marker. They disregard evidence that the Muslim rulers, unlike the British rulers, did not take resources away from India, that they employed large numbers of Hindus in their bureaucracy and patronized many Hindu sects through land grants and financial subsidies. They refuse to accept that forcible conversions were rare occurrences under the Muslim rulers.

In a similar vein they ignore the analysis which demonstrates that the decline of the Mughal Empire was not caused by the ‘bigotry’ of Aurangzeb but by circumstances that affected the efficient functioning of the jagirdari system which in turn was the result of a serious agrarian crisis in the late 17th century that undermined the economic sustainability of the Mughal Empire.


After the military conquest of India by the British, the British rulers and administrators appropriated India’s past. This act of appropriation was famously announced by James Mill in his book, The History of British India, where he wrote, ‘The subject [Indian history] forms an entire, and highly interesting, portion of the British history.’ The statement implied that India/Indians had no history before the coming of the British. This effacement of the past was also coupled with disdain and condescension.

Thomas Babington Macaulay, who served as the Law Member of the Governor-General’s Council in the 1830s and then went on to become a prominent writer and intellectual in Britain, wrote with supreme smugness: ‘a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia’; he heaped scorn on ‘History, abounding with kings thirty feet high, and reigns thirty thousand years long – and Geography, made up of seas of treacle and seas of butter.’

Based on these assumptions British historians began to write their own version of India’s history – a version from which India’s past was edited out. Everything that was pre-British in India was written off as barbaric. The British had arrived in India with a civilizing mission – what Rudyard Kipling called the White Man’s Burden. India had to be reformed but before that reformation could take place there had to be a destruction of all that was barbaric. Thus, the military conquests of India by the British were depicted in terms of valour and heroism. British governors-general and military commanders had defeated Indian rulers – Sirajuddaulah, Tipu Sultan, the Marathas, the Sikhs and other regional powers – because they were incompetent, despotic and profligate. Civilization had triumphed over barbarism. This was the British edition of India’s past.


There were two aspects that this edition deliberately underplayed. One was the violence that the British had deployed to conquer and rule India. British rule in India was based on a meticulously constructed monopoly of violence: it was based on violence. It began as an act of conquest and violence was its ultimate imprimatur. Any challenge to this monopoly of violence was ruthlessly suppressed. Witness the counter-insurgency measures in 1857. The British version depicted British rule in India as being benevolent. British rule was ma bap ke sarkar. The shedding of Indian blood was obliterated and British heroism glorified. Hence the statues referred to earlier on in this essay.

The other aspect that the British ignored was that there had been a plan to conquer India. As one British historian declared, the British empire had been acquired in ‘a fit of absent-mindedness’. What was implied was that British merchants and military adventurers had accidentally come to acquire territories in India which per force they had to administer to usher in civilization into India. These came to be the hallmarks of imperialist history writing.


This kind of history writing which distorted and edited India’s past had very powerful philosophical underpinnings. The German philosopher, Hegel, admired India’s literary and cultural achievements but did not believe India had a history. Hegel wrote: ‘It is obvious to anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of the treasures of Indian literature that this country, so rich in spiritual achievements of a truly profound quality, has no history.’ He made the same point more than once. Even Karl Marx argued that India was caught in the warp of ‘changelessness’ (read no history) which was a characteristic he conceptualized as the ‘Asiatic mode of production’.

The absence of history made India inferior to Europe and therefore India was not yet ready to receive the gifts of democracy and liberty that the Enlightenment had provided. India had to be prepared (reformed) to receive the gifts of liberty, democracy and capitalist modernity. Until the training in liberty and democracy was completed, the best that a country like India could hope for was a benevolent despotism.

John Stuart Mill (the son of James) wrote in On Liberty – one of the foundational texts of liberalism – that, ‘Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. Until then, there is nothing for them but implicit obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they are so fortunate as to find one.’


This clear statement left unclear how long the tutorials on liberty and democracy would last. This nurtured what the historian Francis Hutchins called ‘the illusion of permanence’. In 1872, the liberal prime minister Gladstone was writing to the then viceroy of India, Lord Northbrook, ‘When we go, if we are ever to go.’ And, of course, there was no acknowledgement that the British Empire, on which, it was assumed, the sun would never set, was based on violent conquest, loot, plunder and systematic exploitation of the people and the resources of India. This economic exploitation was so severe that in 1900, India which was often described as ‘the brightest jewel in the British Crown’ was one of the poorest countries in the world. This last fact did not merit even a small mention in the British edition.

This kind of history writing also had another feature to which Manan Ahmed Asif in his outstanding book, The Loss of Hindustan, the Invention of India, has drawn our attention: how Europe worked to erase Hindustan in its own practices of history writing. In Asif’s words, ‘Under the guise of a purported universalism – the field of world history – it stripped "Hindustan" from geography and supplanted it with another concept, "India".’ What this process entailed was the collection, archiving, organizing and excerpting textual and material forms to produce histories of India.

This process began in the 16th century with the arrival of many Europeans and European trading bodies in India. They saw ‘India’ as a geographical entity and this was the first step towards the political forgetting of Hindustan. But before the arrival of Europeans, which is conveniently seen as the point of departure for the construction of histories of India, there existed the idea of Hindustan as a political and spatial entity. This idea was articulated in works of history written in Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, forms of Prakrit and later Urdu – all written between the 10th and the 19th centuries. This history and modes of history writing was stifled and suppressed under colonial forms of organizing historical material and producing history. Hindustan became a palimpsest for India. The history of Hindustan was edited and replaced by the history of India.


The Indian challenge to this kind of history writing – the Indian edition if you like – emerged at the end of the 19th century and gained momentum in the 20th century with the rise of Indian nationalism. Indian nationalism began its career with many attempts to reclaim India’s past. Nationalists claimed India had its own history, which should be written by Indians themselves so that history-writing could be freed of lies and distortions introduced by foreign rule and its attendant historiography. This was one of the rallying cries of Indian nationalism. ‘We have no history. We must have a history’, wrote Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay, the preeminent Bengali writer and intellectual in the closing decades of the 19th century. Thus began the process of editing imperialist history writing and replacing it with a version of history that was infused with nationalism.

History thus came to be used for the project of nation-building. The claim to recall one’s own past, articulated most strongly in the late 19th century by Bankimchandra, was nothing more than a claim to have the power to represent oneself. History became a battleground for political power itself. Throughout the history of the nationalist movement, writers and political leaders engaged themselves in the task of retelling the past to fulfil a political agenda. Apart from the novels and essays of Bankimchandra, the books of R.C. Dutt, V.D. Savarkar’s invocation of 1857, Jawaharlal Nehru’s Discovery of India and many other books and tracts were all attempts, in different ways, to remember the past to instil pride in the motherland and even to engage in action against the foreign ruler.


Even after independence, this attempt to infuse history-writing with nationalism continued, and professional historians were used by the Indian state to write history. Tara Chand’s History of the Freedom Movement and S.N. Sen’s 1857 were important milestones. But history-writing outside the aegis of the state, the writings of R.C. Majumdar are important examples, was also imbued with the spirit of nationalism. The state’s involvement in history writing increased with the formation of the Indian Council for Historical Research in the early Seventies. A particular interpretation of Indian history came to be projected as the authorized version. This had somewhat dubious implications in the field of the history of the Indian national movement. A unilinear view of the anti-colonial struggle received the official sanction.

Movements and tendencies outside the fold of the Congress-led struggle received little or no attention. Because historiography became the voice of the state, the past was coloured by the state’s ideology. Secularism was discovered even where it did not exist and all that was obviously non-secular was seen as an aberration. Movements that were not part of the Gandhian national movement – Dalit movements, women’s movements, the role of armed revolutionaries, histories of areas like the North East of India – were either edited out or were not given prominence in this version of history writing which was state driven and at the head of that state was the Congress party.

Historians soon began to point out the restricted and one-sided nature of this version of history writing. A group of radical historians drew attention to its elitist bias and in their own versions of history writing they emphasized the role of the subaltern classes who had challenged the dominance of imperial and Indian elites.


Another kind of objection has come from the sangh parivar, which has no reservations to either the state being involved in history-writing or to using history for nation-building. They also have no objections to projecting the nation in heroic terms. They only want the secular nation to become a Hindu nation, secular heroes to be replaced by Hindu heroes. This is a call for a shift in political and ideological slant which has come to be implicated with movements like the destruction of the Babri Masjid, the renaming of roads, cities, airports and the construction of the Central Vista. A new edition of Indian history is being created.

Historians, ever since the academic discipline of history began, have been debating amongst themselves over their interpretations of the past. But when politicians begin to use history to justify empire building and the setting up of states, erasures, editing, deletions and obliterations happen. Unfortunately, the past cannot write ‘stet’ over what has been edited out or deleted.


* The views expressed in this essay are the author’s own.