Democratising history

Print edition : September 15, 2001

Prehistory by Irfan Habib, People's History of India 1, published by the Aligarh Historians Society and Tulika, New Delhi, 2001; pages 76, Rs.160.

I never wanted to practise safe history.

- Howard Zinn, author of A People's History of the United States.

THE genre of 'people's history' writing occupies an important place within national traditions of history writing the world over. Arising from within the progressive, Marxist intellectual framework, this approach challenged many of the assumptions and methods of conservative historiography. People's history series or individual books have enriched and democratised history. They have widened the historical lens to bring in hitherto excluded social segments into the picture; they have analysed historical change from the perspective of groups and classes in the forefront of movements for social change; and they have made history accessible and relevant to the non-specialist without any dilution of its content or quality. In the English speaking world, two well-known examples of people's histories are A People's History of England by A.L. Morton and A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn.

In India, Jawaharlal Nehru's Discovery of India represents perhaps the earliest attempt at surveying the sweep of Indian history from a nationalist, pro-people spirit of historical inquiry. But the Indian historical stage is vast. Not only does recorded history go back almost 5,000 years, there are also significant regional variations in how societies evolved, while historical source material from the subcontinent offers itself in a bewildering range of categories that differ from one another in both content and form.

Nevertheless, the need for a connected history of this subcontinent of immense diversity remains; and the People's History of India series initiated with the publication of Prehistory by Irfan Habib is in response to that need. While the series will broadly fall under the Ancient, Medieval, Modern periodisation scheme, each will comprise a set of fascicules that can stand by itself. "The idea behind the series was to provide a textbook level book for senior college students, teachers and the interested citizen that presented a larger view of social development," Irfan Habib, editor of the series, said. "The series will provide the latest developments in historical research," he said, adding that one of its purposes would be to provide evidence to refute Hindutva distortions in history.

Prehistory launches the series by beginning at the very beginning - with the origin of life 3,500 to 4,000 million years ago! The slim volume starts with the geological formation of the Indian subcontinent and takes the reader through the evolution of the human species from Homo habilus to the anatomically modern man who appeared about 115,000 years ago according to the archaeological records of South Africa. It was from here that modern man is believed to have migrated to West Asia, and then traversed across Asia (making an entry into India around 75,000 years ago) into Australia.

The migratory urge of human groups across continents, the fashioning of new technologies, and the development of speech are parts of a remarkable story that we can never reconstruct in all its drama. Prehistory discusses the archaeological markers of human and societal evolution over a period of about 65,000 years, from modern man's first entry into the subcontinent until around 8000 B.C., when more substantial evidence of Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) cultures surface.

The third and most substantial section of the book discusses the next leap in human social organisation made possible by the refinement of tool-making technologies. The Neolithic (New Stone Age) revolution propelled by more efficient tools, led to agriculture and the domestication of cattle. There is a detailed discussion of the important site of Mehrgarh in Baluchistan, which provides evidence for every phase of the Neolithic Revolution between 7000 B.C. and 3800 B.C. Mehrgarh provides important evidence from around 4000 B.C. of the potter's wheel, which Irfan Habib says came from West Asia, where there is evidence of its usage from 5000 B.C.

NEOLITHIC cultures developed in other parts of the subcontinent. Two major cultures that developed after 3000 B.C. were in the Kashmir valley and in Karnataka.The book discusses these sites and the influence they had on the early history of the subcontinent.

The text of Prehistory is richly illustrated with maps. It includes some unlikely mapping themes such as 'India' 65 million years ago, with boundaries of the tectonic plates (page 3), as also more conventional and useable maps, such as the one showing the Neolithic sites on the subcontinent with their dates (pages 58-59). The text is also accompanied by detailed drawings of artefacts such as microliths and other stone tools, pottery, craftsmen's tools, cave drawings, and so on.

Owing partly to the nature of the technical terrain it covers, Prehistory does not lend itself to an easy read - a feature that future volumes in the series will hopefully not share. In the format adopted for Prehistory, and presumably for the monographs that will follow, footnotes have been replaced by bibliographical notes that appear at the end of each chapter. The reasons for a relatively limited reading list that the book provides (especially for Chapter 1) are not clear. It could be based on the perfectly legitimate assumption that in this age of instant information, a reader who wants more information on a particular topic can quickly get it on the Internet.

The People's History of India project has received a seed grant from the Madhya Pradesh government. In fact, the Madhya Pradesh Textbook Corporation will use the books as models on which more simplified textbooks could be written for State schools. The next book in the series, also by Irfan Habib, will be on the Indus civilisation. The fascicules will be published as and when they are ready and not necessarily in chronological sequence. The series is likely to have at least 20 volumes.

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