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Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

When there is too much Indian history to remember

Discrete regional and cultural histories are invaluable and equally inevitable in such a large country

One of the great challenges with Indian history is that there is just so much of it. Not only is there an abundance of material—millions of manuscripts, thousands of inscriptions, hundreds of buildings, dozens of tombs—but also an abundance of possible frameworks and approaches to interpret this material. Complicating all this further is the third dimension that is always germane to the study of anything Indian—the “local".

For the sake of argument, imagine that we’ve just discovered two documents in a library somewhere in New Delhi. Both are medieval documents that deal with, say, land revenue. Let us say that one document is from medieval Bengal and the other from medieval Tamil Nadu.

They might seem very similar. But, in fact, they could well be drafted in two entirely different languages, using two entirely different systems of land assessment and prepared by two entirely different regimes functioning in two entirely different economic environments. One could be a Hindu kingdom in a state of drought. And the other could be a Muslim one in a state of war. So much so that a scholar’s ability to make complete sense of one of these documents is no guarantee of the person’s ability to make sense of the other.

Indeed, and this might sound like a question in an MBA entrance exam, you will probably need at least four historians to make sense of these two findings. A historian each for medieval Bengal and medieval Tamil Nadu. A third historian who can take the work of the previous two and situate it within a broader medieval Indian canvas. And, finally, a fourth historian who will try and find out how these two documents landed up in the same archive in New Delhi.

But what does this densely interconnected framework of ideas, perspectives, specializations and dependencies mean for public history in India?

When faced with such an abundance of historical narratives, the general responses fall into two broad tendencies. Let me explain both with an example.

The first tendency is to reduce all history into a master national historical narrative. This narrative includes, respectively, ancient India, a stream of incursions from the north-west, classical India, Muslim invasions, Mughals, Marathas and others, British and others, freedom struggle, independence, Partition, M.K. Gandhi, elections, Jawaharlal Nehru, Emergency, various wars, a compulsory chapter on dams, before petering out into brief looks at modern history.

Setting aside the ‘Delhi-centredness’ of such a telling, there are at least two other problems with such a master narrative. First, it creates a sort of mongrel history that in seeking to create history for everybody ends up creating a history for nobody. How many parts of India experienced all those things in equal measure: dams, Indus Valley, Partition, empire?

Second, such a history, by virtue of its focus on sweeping trends and big ideas, dehumanizes itself. It writes out the messiness of lived experience in favour of the neatness of big ideas.

Consider the Emergency. As always, the June anniversary was marked by several articles looking back at the darkness of the Emergency. Some of these articles referred in passing to policies such as the sterilization programmes. But what was the lived experience of this policy? In 2015, Ashwaq Masoodi published in Mint the chilling story of the village of Uttawar in Haryana, where, in November 1976, 12,000 policemen rounded up at least 200 men and had them forcibly sterilized. Perhaps 20 men later died from the procedure. It is a story that must never be forgotten. For these villagers, the Emergency was not the curtailment of the press or the bending of the courts, but the loss of control over their own bodies. In national historical narratives, there is little space to break down the idea of the Emergency into the inhumanity of Uttawar.

If the first tendency is homogenization, the second tendency is specification—when the history of a particular region or state is distilled out of the master national narrative and compiled into its own story.

This tendency throws up delicious possibilities. Consider a recent paper published by Filipa Lowndes Vincente at the University of Lisbon titled Goa Displayed In Goa: The 1860 Industrial Exhibition of Portuguese Colonial India. As the title suggests, Vincente studies the records of an 1860 exhibition held in Goa to understand many facets of Goan history, including the gradual Portuguese acceptance of the art and culture of a pre-Portuguese Hindu Goa: “No longer a threat, Hinduism could become part of the scholarly scope of a non-religious Orientalism, this being an Orientalism that is no longer associated with the need to learn Indian languages as an instrument of conversion to Catholicism."

The paper is quite fascinating and captures the richness of material and interpretation that is available even in the history of a place as geographically small as Goa. How much space would a single 19th century Goan exhibition find in a master historical narrative of the republic of India? Very little.

These twin tendencies are not easy to reconcile. National historical narratives are essential and inevitable. Discrete regional and cultural histories are invaluable and equally inevitable in such a large country. Integrating both into a wholesome sense of Indian history is no mean task. But hopefully at least some readers will see the benefit in both questioning the national and encouraging the local.

Unity in diversity is a catchy slogan, but bloody hard work.

Déjà View is a fortnightly conversation on history. Read Sidin Vadukut’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/dejaview

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