On February 13 Union Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan told the Lok Sabha during Question Hour: “ICHR [Indian Council of Historical Research] has not launched any project to rewrite Indian History. The government has no intention to rewrite history. But if you ask me, if the ICHR has taken any project on history, with due respect, I would like to inform this House that, yes it has taken.” He also said: “We are expanding history and filling gaps by incorporating major historical events, personalities and incidents which are not part of history books.”
A few days before this, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat said in an interview to his organisation’s mouthpieces (Panchjanya and Organiser): “Hindu society has been at war for 1000 years.” “It is but natural for those at war to be aggressive… the war is… against an enemy within—it is a war to defend Hindu society, Hindu dharma and Hindu culture.” The identity of the “enemy within” for the RSS has never been in doubt. And Bhagwat indeed underlined that “Islam has nothing to fear but Muslims have to give up their boisterous rhetoric of supremacy.” Muslims have always been under scrutiny of the RSS.
The ICHR exhibition “Glory of Medieval India: Manifestation of the Unexplored Indian Dynasties, 8th-18th Centuries” (Ministry of Education, with the G20 logo), inaugurated on January 30 in Delhi, provides a fair idea of the historical mind of these ideologues. On display were about 50 panels covering nearly 50 dynasties from different parts of the subcontinent. Though not said in so many words, all the dynasties listed, catalogued and glorified in this saga of the millennium are so-called “Hindu” dynasties. Scores of the so-called “Muslim” (though better known through their ethnic or regional nomenclatures such as Arabs, Mongols, Mameluks, Turks, Lodhis, Chaghtais, down to the “Mughals”) dynasties have been blacked out in this narrative, invoked only when targeted as villains. Incidentally, many of these “Muslim” power houses reigned over much larger geographical areas than almost all the dynasties eulogised in this exhibition.
The general pattern of display had the name of the dynasty, its period of rule, its geographical location, a static design of the chariot (during the whole millennium!) with occasional representations of the dynastic flag, and some mention of cultural features—monumental remains, literary texts, inscriptions, coins, and occasional allusions to the dynasty’s technological and military prowess.
To begin with, the accent on the “unexplored” is somewhat baffling and intriguing. Even a novice endowed with a modicum of training in history would know that in the last hundred years or so, each and every empanelled dynasty has been extensively explored. It would perhaps not be an exaggeration to say that almost all have been exhaustively ransacked for information. Enchanted by this claim of “Manifestation of the Unexplored Indian Dynasties”, I spent nearly three hours at the exhibition. Thereafter, I pondered over the degree of my enlightenment by taking stock of the extant reading material that has been available even to an undergraduate student since at least the 1940s (excluding extremely rich and varied historical writings in all regional languages). Without straining myself, I could recall at least the following:
(a) Nearly 70 monographs on various dynastic histories, each one of them enlightening us, though in a somewhat stereotyped format, about genealogies, the achievements of the dramatis personae, and contemporary society, religion, economy and arts during their times. Incidentally, at the very first session of the Indian History Congress held at Poona (now Pune) in June 1935, S.K. Bhuyan presented a paper on Lachit Barphukan, the great commander of the Ahoms (who is specially eulogised by the present political establishments, both in Delhi and in Assam), which was later developed into a detailed monograph (Lachit Barphukan and His Times) and published in 1947. Its Hindi translation was also published by National Book Trust in 1962.
(b) About 50 regional and comprehensive histories covering almost the whole subcontinent. Amongst some select regional histories, one may mention two volumes each of History of Bengal and History of Orissa; multiple volumes each of Comprehensive History and Culture of Andhra Pradesh and Comprehensive History of Bihar; Bihar Through the Ages, Rajasthan Through the Ages, Malwa Through the Ages, Karnataka Through the Ages; two volumes each of the Early History of the Deccan and Medieval History of the Deccan, etc. Monographs on the so-called neglected regions of north-eastern India and Kashmir would include Comprehensive History of Assam, Studies in the History of Assam, Short History of Manipur, Early Meiti History, Kashmir Through the Ages, Ancient and Medieval Kashmir, and Early Medieval History of Kashmir. This is by no means an exhaustive list and numerous other works dealing with almost all regions of the subcontinent have been in the public domain since at least the 1940s.
(c) Numerous multi-volume series, which go beyond discussing the dynasties that figure in the ICHR exhibition and provide space even for minor dynasties that have been excluded from this exhibition (the Bhanjas, the Tungas, the Kacchhapaghatas, to name just a few). Strikingly, all these ventures, like the aforesaid dynastic and regional histories, have been the products of scholarship of Indian historians. Indeed, K.M. Munshi, who conceived and planned The History and Culture of the Indian People under the auspices of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan (with Professor R.C. Majumdar as the General Editor), had claimed, “This is the first history of India, written exclusively by her own people.” A team of over 60 scholars of repute collaborated to produce an 11-volume series in the 1950s and the 1960s. Volumes III, IV, V and VIII of this series deal with the so-called “unexplored” dynasties. These have been “must read” books for undergraduate students since then.
Another venture of collaborative expertise (also since the 1950s) has been A Comprehensive History of India under the auspices of the Indian History Congress (in 12 volumes, where volumes III, IV, V and IX are relevant in the present context). Since the turn of the millennium, History of Science, Philosophy and Culture in Indian Civilization, a series projected for approximately 100 volumes under the General Editorship of Professor D.P. Chattopadhyaya is under publication. Of these, 97 parts spread over 16 volumes are already available. Still more recently, the Vivekananda International Foundation has brought out 11 volumes of History of Ancient India (2014-23; volume V on Political History and Administration, c.AD 750-1300).
The notion of the “glory” of Medieval India is no less problematic. It smacks of conceit and reminds us of Alberuni’s characteristic observation about “Hindus” in the 11th century. The task of a historian is to understand and explain, to the best of her ability, nuances of historical processes in a holistic manner. After all, people in any society are not perfect. No society is infallible. Given the historian’s dharma, society and history’s zealous questioning is not only desirable but also an imperative. It should be welcomed. But in the Mohan Bhagwat school of historical learning, questioning is not permissible. The pedagogy of the shakhas does not encourage the nira-kshira viveka (wisdom of separating water from milk) of a hamsa (swan). Only parroting, it seems, is allowed.
I see no reason for the defensive posture adopted by the Hon’ble Education Minister in his aforesaid statement in the Lok Sabha. Neither “rewriting” nor “expanding history and filling gaps” should make us cagey. These are not startling innovations and have been going on ceaselessly since the time “history writing” began. No historian worth her salt would ever grudge it. Indeed, as an integral part of the overall historical process, one is expected to be constantly aware of and sensitive to paradigm shifts in the discipline. And there have been very many such shifts in the last several decades, which have enriched the discipline enormously.
As paramount as retellings are, the historian does not have the licence to reinvent or manufacture pasts. Regrettably, such an effort is discernible in the ICHR exhibition. The obsession to highlight “democratic ethos”, “grass-root democracy”, “egalitarianism”, “meritocracy”, “tolerance”, etc., in a highly fissured society (both vertically and horizontally) is laughable, to put it politely. For instance, even the alleged inclusion of Rajasthan and Mughal architecture in the Amer fort of the Kachhwahas is seen as indicative of the “spirit of democracy”. Similarly, the so-called “elected” local administrators (“nalgamundas”) under the Rashtrakutas are lauded as “grass-root democracy”, forgetting that such local assemblies were simply oligarchies of vested landed interests, comparable with the similarly situated and much discussed “republics” a millennium ago in the times of the Buddha. Despite numerous known examples of inter- and intra-sectarian conflicts, tolerance and egalitarianism have been attributed in several cases (Kalachuris, and Gahadavalas).
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That India had taken giant strides in metallurgy by the 5th century CE has been known for ages on the basis of the renowned “Iron Pillar of Chandra” standing on the premises of the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque near Qutb Minar in Delhi. So, what is the big deal about telling us that the Ahom era cannons and the “largest pre-modern cannon” of Raghunatha Nayaka (of 17th century Madurai and Thanjavur) are indicative of advances made in metallurgy? More significant in this context is the silence on the issue of the advent of gunpowder technology in India. Is it because it came from China through intermediaries of whom perhaps the most important were the Mongols? These so-called “Muslim invaders” introduced gunpowder in North-Western India during the latter half of the 13th century.
Another example of intriguing silence, perhaps for the same reason, would be the blacking out of the 18th century painted panels (in the Mysore palace) of French artillerymen in Tipu Sultan’s army. Contrast this with the display of a 16th century painting depicting Portuguese artillerymen in the army of the Vijayanagara emperor Krishnadeva Raya as a proof of “scientific open-mindedness” (panel on the Saluvas and Tuluvas). Incidentally, when French soldiers marched down Rajpath (now Kartavyapath) on Republic Day in 2016, several print media reports recalled the “Tipu Sultan connection”.
While we read about the wealth used for “construction of temples”, there is almost a complete absence of production and manufacturing processes. The visitor to the ICHR exhibition will return without knowing that between the 16th and the 18th centuries, India was among the top economic powers of the world. And, truly speaking, India was then an integral part of the global historical process.
The planners and organisers of the exhibition display insensitivity in some territorial and dynastic nomenclatures. The outdated use of “Orissa” and “Far East” instead of Odisha and East Asia, respectively, is rather jarring. Similarly, seven dynasties being predictably designated as “Rajput” without recognising the now better understood process of “rajputisation” is an illustration of the absence of nuance in such historical reconstructions. How does one understand only the Cholas being called a “Tamil” dynasty and the Kakatiyas “an Indian Dynasty”?
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Conceptually, all the exhibited panels are juxtaposed with the period in European history known as the “medieval period” and the “Dark Ages” (in the introductory panel of the exhibition). Regrettably, the exhibition does not ask the question why, if Renaissance and Enlightenment in Europe from the 14th to the 18th centuries heralded the “modern period”, the same centuries in India came to be classed as the “medieval period”. Conversely, if the medieval Indian millennium was all that “glorious”, as the exhibition proclaims, why talk about 1,000 years of war and slavery? Isn’t the latter narrative, a glorious adaptation of colonial constructs of Max Muller and James Mill, also a stock public discourse of the present-day political establishment?
Finally, it seems that young children were targeted through this exhibition but no reading material—not even a pamphlet—was made available at the venue.
Krishna Mohan Shrimali is former Professor of History, University of Delhi.
- An ICHR exhibition showcases what it calls unexplored dynasties of medieval India.
- The claim is problematic because all the dynasties covered in the exhibition have already been studied exhaustively.
- The exhibition has left out all the Muslim dynasties of medieval India.