History in South Asia


Allah’s Army in Pakistan
Hindutva Brigade in India
Buddhist Lions in Sri Lanka
A prominent South Asia Historians’ meet unravels our shared past to dispel the myth–making and hate –preaching in the name of history teaching in the sub-continent

Drawing national boundaries for the creation of independent states in South Asia — India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh — has resulted in the dissection of history, too, within the limits set by these modern nation states. Over the past fifty years or so, both the learning and teaching of history in these countries has done little to widen the scope of  exploration and inquiry to encompass a wider reality, an area that has experienced common links and trends, over centuries. These links and shared experiences got severed, suddenly but surely, once the state in each of these countries dominated the subject of history learning, especially through deciding the content of syllabi and the writing of text–books.
The Kandyan period in Sri Lankan History between the 17th and 19th centuries fascinatingly reveals how regional bonds, on caste lines, were formed by the ruling castes transcending national boundaries.

There are several examples during this period of the Sinhala nobility, in consultation with the Buddhist clergy, choosing an external ruler from a South Indian dynasty — especially the Nayakkars — and inviting them to govern. This was because caste affiliations were more important in this period — barely three hundred years ago — then ethnic ones.

The first Nayakkar king was promoted to the throne by the chief incumbent of the Navaddha Vihara, a revered figure among the Buddhist monks, the Samakha Sangha Rajja. This particular dynasty, thus invited, remained in power for about four generations and formed close alliances with the Lankan nobility.

More significantly, over the past century, historical construction, history learning and its dissemination has also resulted in the legitimising of certain groups, defined in terms of the “majority”. In the process, “others” have got excluded. The construction of this ‘minority’–‘majority’ discourse has also meant defining people’s identities exclusively in religious terms, ignoring the multifarious facets of identity that are historical and practical realities.
There have also been distinct phases behind this legitimisation and exclusion that are not only crucially linked to the emergence of these nation states but which have had a direct impact on the kind of nation state — its inherent composition and commitment — that got formed, in all three countries within this region.

A three–day South Asia consultation organised by KHOJ, a secular education programme within India, enabled historians, educationists, writers and activists to meet in Mumbai between January 26–28 to discuss this and other aspects of ‘History Learning, Exploration and Teaching within South Asia’. Internationally–acclaimed historian and professor emeritus of Jawaharlal Nehru University, Romila Thapar, prominent historian of modern history, K.N. Panikkar, vice–chancellor of Peredeniya University and leading Sri Lankan historian–anthropologist, Leslie Gunawardana, and prominent dissenting historian from Pakistan, Mubarak Ali, were among the participants.

Only religion counts
Viewed together, people in the South Asian region have had close links with each other, before and after the creation of these nation states. Trade and business links, cultural links and environmental concerns, not just religious allegiances. These appear to have been brutally and artificially severed or, at the very least, severely strained.

Gandhi’s symbolic act in breaking the repressive Salt Law by consuming a pinch of salt on April 6, at Dandi, gave the greatest fillip to the Civil Disobedience Movement against the British? Over 1,00,000, Khudai Khidmatgars (Servants of God) swore an oath to the non-violent path on April 23, 1930, under the leadership of Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, laid down their handmade rifles and faced the worst–ever repression from the British. ‘Frontier Gandhi’ and his strong army representing the whole of the north west frontier province resisted the Partition.

Within a year of it taking place, Mahatma Gandhi had been assassinated by a Hindu fanatic (on Jan 30, 1948) and Frontier Gandhi, Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, had been jailed by Pakistan’s Islamic government for sedition and being ‘pro–Hindu’.
The participants at the workshop were agreed that to even begin examining the plausibility of re–orienting our learning — and teaching — processes within the wider reality of South Asia as a region (and not limiting them to narrower and narrower visions of reality), it is vital today to examine in detail the difficulties that may come in the way of this approach.

The peculiar circumstances behind the vivisection of the sub–continent on religious lines has led to an artificial and in a sense now, real, super–imposition of religious identities over any other in the region. This has had peculiar consequences on the interpretation, reading and teaching of history within the countries in the South Asian region. Emergent exclusivist tendencies that are not religious, but misuse religion and religious symbols have led to the acute communalisation of discourse, the state and the polity in all of South Asia.

Ironically, just as the region is intrinsically inter–linked, so do the various types of communalisms have an irretrievable link. They feed upon and foster each other.

(From L to R: Professor  Leslie Gunawardana (Sri Lanka), Dr. Mubarak Ali (Pakistan) and Dilip Simeon (New Delhi). 

What partition did to people
Partition, 1947, was re–visited during the consultation in the context of the emergent nation states and their dominant ideologies often governed by these majoritarian precepts and biases. What emerged as a fascinating theme from the discussions was the examination of “Partition as Loss (in the Indian context), Partition as Achievement (in the Pakistani context) and Partition as a Symbol to justify the political behaviour of Hindus today (by proponents of a chauvinist Hindu ideology)”.

The teaching of the event of Partition, Panikkar maintained, should be seen as the culmination of a process of communali-sation that took place in both communities. He argued that scant attention has been paid to the activities of organs like the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha and little reference is found to their divisive role pre–Partition. Unless the history teacher and student is given access to all these facets that surround the event, it is inevitable that the country’s break–up will continue to be viewed selectively and raise high emotions.

This session that greatly enthused the school teachers who participated in the workshop also dwelt at length on the various aspects of Partition that could be taught to students of history at the school, college and university levels. How was the border actually drawn? What did it do to the areas through which the dividing line passed? What did Partition do to the armed forces? What did it mean for marginalised sections like women, Dalits, prisoners, persons kept in mental asylums? The human dimensions of the tragic event are hardly explored in history teaching.

What happened to border areas as a consequence of Partition? Are we at all aware of the half–a–million strong ‘Hindu” population living on the Bangladesh–India border, even today? The Chitmahals is the name given to the territory, many of whom have homes encircled by a Bangla village! What about the border peoples of the Sindh and Kutch deserts?

What were the mechanics of division when Partition took place? What were the human dimensions of the event? The army was divided between India and Pakistan on almost entirely communal lines. Prisoners from jails and residents of asylums for mental health were also carted to one side or another on the basis of their religious identity. Even eunuchs were forced to choose! Yet, they still meet once a year in joyous re-union, on this or that side of the border, embarrassing the Indian and Pakistan consulates into granting visas. Hundreds of thousands of children were lost in refugee camps. The province of Sindh passed the Essential Services Maintance Act (ESMA) following partition, forbidding Dalits from crossing to India as the sanitation system of the whole province would collapse!

It was strongly felt that all this would have to be looked at in the context of dealing with a subject that, even today, triggers high emotions and charged personal memories. The teacher who thus deals with the issue will need to stay with the traumas that such a difficult issue may cause within the confines of the class before moving in the many-faceted directions creatively.

Interestingly, the animated discussion was felt to be of relevance even to Sri Lanka that today faces a possible partitioning of the island on communal lines. Participants felt it would be extremely worthwhile to organise workshops for history teachers in different parts of the country and the rest of South Asia around the single theme: “How Partition Can be Taught.”

History in service of the State
Within India, even when ostensibly secular parties were in power, textbooks were laced with scarcely-veiled derogatory references to Islam and Muslims. (See box on text-books). These text–books were authored by state–sponsored writers, post–Partition. This period, Partition and the diverse processes that led up to it, is hardly explored in ‘official’ Indian texts. ‘The Birth of the Muslim League’, ‘Lahore Declaration’, ‘Mohammad Ali Jinnah’ and ‘Direct Action Day’ are the four telling heads under which the entire upheaval is dismissed in just four-five paragraphs each. There is not even an oblique reference to the emergence of Hindu chauvinist (communal) outfits like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) or the Hindu Mahasabha, bodies that contributed significantly to the divisive discourse of the time, finally culminating in the vivisection. The assassination of M.K. Gandhi by Nathuram Godse, a member of both the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS, also receives scant attention in these books.

Professor Romila Thapar at the Khoj workshop

Worse, parallel Indian texts sponsored by Hindu chauvinist outfits like the Vidya Bharati of the RSS that run parallel schools in most Indian states, emphasise a mono-cultural, mono-religious construct of India, denigrate Pakistan, dubbing it “Paapistan”(the land of the sinner) and constantly question the nationalist character of Indian Muslims. Of late, in BJP run-states there have been attempts, successful in some cases, of elevating Hindu chauvinist leaders to the status of “national heroes.”

The poet–philosopher, social reformer, Kabir, on the other hand, is conveniently relegated by secular India’s texts as the apostle of Hindu–Muslim unity when historical examination reveals him to be a stringent critique of the ritualism and dogma that had then come to epitomise both faiths.

Fifty years of history teaching in Pakistan is a unique example of the impact state ideology can have on the discipline. History, under a theocratic state, has been used as a tool by the Islamic republic of Pakistan to reinforce the ideology of Pakistan and the two-nation theory that is the basis of its formation. Anything that stands in the way of this justification is simply ignored or discarded, no matter what this means to the student of history.

For two decades after Partition, history teaching and text–books within Pakistan were not significantly different from Indian text books in either periodisation or content. But Pakistan’s loss in the 1965 war with India changed all that. Until then, only political heroes figured in the country’s text books but after the humiliating defeat against India, the weakened Pakistan state introduced the study of the army and military heroes within the classroom. What is worse, also since then, ancient history has been blotted out in all school and college-level education in Pakistan. It now exists merely as an option for post–graduate students. (See box interview with Dr. Mubarak Ali).

Myth of the Aryan race
Colonial historians are largely responsible for the mythical construct of people who spoke the Indo–Arya language into a distinct and superior race — the Aryans. This has since been alternately used by Hindu Indian, Sinhala Buddhist and Tamil Sri Lankan chauvinists to “prove” their superiority and more legitimate claim on the “indigenous” soil. This has also fed into the exclusivist discourse adopted by Hindu “nationalists”, conveniently used to describe Islam and Christianity as “alien” faiths and its followers as potential “anti–nationals.”

The contentious theory of Aryan invasion bears close examination even in relation to Dalit–Bahujan ideology that seeks political mobilisation on a theory of Aryan invasion followed by their (Aryan) oppression of the “indigenous’ Dravida race. Ironically, Muslim communalists, both within Pakistan and Sri Lanka, seek to establish their “racial” origins to Arabia. The crudest interpretations within Pakistan blot out any reference to Akbar while glorifying Aurangzeb. But it is difficult for this line of selective historiography to discard the medieval Indian period altogether because that would mean letting go of both the Red Fort and the Taj Mahal!

History as memory
History as memory, even though a more privileged memory as it is a specialised discipline that trains the historian to investigate a variety of sources, their motivations and their interpretations through the centuries, was also an area examined closely during this workshop.

Romila Thapar shared some of the insights arrived at through her work on the historical narratives and re-tellings over the centuries of the raid of the Somnath temple. And how selective examination of these varied interpretations impinge on the present understanding of the event. Mahmud Ghazni’s raid of the temple in 1026 A.D. finds variant interpretations from the main sources to the period, the Turko–Persian chronicles, the Jain texts, the Sanskrit inscriptions of the period, the debate in the House of Commons and the so-called ‘nationalist’ reading of the event.

In the Turko–Persian chronicles, the narration of Mahmud’s invasions and raid of the temple are depicted as a victory for imperialist Islam. Thereafter, for a few centuries the raid finds scant mention, though the temple itself and the loot of pilgrims who make the pilgrimage is a subject matter that is dealt with in Jain texts and the Sanskrit inscriptions. Most ironically, nearly 200 years after the raid on Somnath — an event that in 20th century discourse has become so central to Hindu–Muslim relations — there is evidence, from inscriptions of the time, of land from the estate of the Somnath temple being granted for the construction of a dharmasthan (mosque) to one Nirodin Piroja (Nooruddin Feroze from Hormuz) by the local Panchakula (powerful local administrative committees headed in the this case by Purohit Veerabhadra, the chief priest of Somnath). The language and tone of this legal document, available in both Sanskirt and Arabic is friendly and has no evidence of the rancour with which this temple and the event are viewed with today.

The participants felt that quite apart from text books, syllabus and teaching in the classroom, popular history being disseminated through pamphlets, newspapers and communalist propaganda networks also need to be examined by historians, and techniques of intervention devised that reach people and the populace beyond the classroom.

The first mention of a “Hindu trauma” is during the House of Commons debate in 1843. In this century, it was K.M. Munsihi’s Jai Somnath, published in 1927, that was critical to mobilising communal Hindu sentiments in Gujarat and Maharashtra where it was very popular.

Post–1947, Munshi a Union cabinet minister, exhorted Nehru to re-build the temple with state funds as this was the least that Hindus could reconcile themselves to! Nehru refused to compromise the secular character of the Indian state by conceding a demand that should be carried out by a private trust.

Building language barriers
The role that language and linguistic identities have played in both communal discourse and secular mobilisation in the South Asian context deserves close historical scrutiny. In Sri Lanka, the declaration of Sinhala as the country’s official language acutely sharpened the ethnic, majority–minority divide into a linguistic one as well. Though state policy could make a significant dent in communal discourse and the ethnic divide in Sri Lanka by simply introducing the study of two languages in the educational process, this has not been done.

Gunawardana made reference to a discourse on state and languages, during the run–up to the inception of the Sri Lankan state in the 1930s. C. D’Silva, a communist leader, had then pointed out to fellow Lankans: “If we adopt one language we will have two states in Sri Lanka, but if we adopt two languages, we can have one state!” D’Silva’s warning went unheeded then, but people in Sri Lanka today are forced to rethink, given the heavy toll the communal divide has taken in that country.
The late 19th century history of the Urdu and Hindi languages is crucial to understanding the manner in which ‘inclusion’ and ‘exclusion’ of poets and writers by the respective tongues was determined by what they wrote when, and for whom, rather than the inherent literary merit of their works. The history of these two languages in north India can also be traced to the communal mobilisations of the Indian polity in the pre-Partition period, Urdu being mis–represented as the language of Muslims and Hindi of the Hindus.

Similarly the birth of Bangladesh in 1971 was critically linked to the hegemony of the Urdu and Punjabi-speaking people over persons of Bengali origin from East Pakistan or east Bengal (pre–Partition). In Pakistan, the imposition of Urdu as the state language has created much resentment within the Sindhi, Seraiki and Pushto–speaking peoples. In India, conversely, Urdu was wrongly dubbed as a ‘Muslim’ language after Independence and Hindi imposed by the state, a fact that caused deep resentment in the southern states.

In 1920, Sindhi religious political leaders made it clear to the Jamait–e–Ulema–Hind, an organisation of the Muslim clergy (with leaders like Maulana Ubed Ullah Sindhi, Maulana Abul Kalaam Azad, Maulana Syed Hussain Madni who had opposed the Partition) that they envisaged Sindh as an independent province that had been captured by the British in 1843.

Even today, a significant section of the Sindhi leadership under leaders like Maulana Ubaidullah Bhutto demand a Sindhi state where nationality must be given to all Sindhis regardless of where they are placed.

History on the streets
Quite apart from text–books and classroom teaching, history is today being re–written in popular communalist discourse through the extensive distribution of pamphlets and other forms of literature. Ten years ago, the countrywide mobilisation for the construction of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, orchestrated as a campaign for the destruction of the Babri Mosque that ‘symbolised centuries of subjugation of Hindus at the hands of Muslim invaders’, was spearheaded by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, RSS and Bajrang Dal. The political spoils are today being enjoyed by the BJP.

Today, malicious pamphlets distributed by organs like the VHP and the Hindu Jagran Manch (see CC, October 1998) distort history to spawn hatred against the Christian minority.

There can be no better example of this use and appropriation of history in popular discourse than in ‘secular’ India today where despite the existence, in principle, of a democratic state and its Constitution, bands of rabid communalists periodically lead attacks on the country’s religious minorities, after whipping popular passions through falsified history, whether on the subject of “conversions” or “invasions.”  

The participants felt that quite apart from text books, syllabus and teaching in the classroom, popular history being disseminated through pamphlets, newspapers and communalist propaganda networks also need to be examined by historians, and techniques of intervention devised that reach people and the populace beyond the classroom.  




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