Reflecting on the Past Before Us in an Age of Hindutva

Mohona Chaudhuri (mchaudhuri96@gmail.com) is an M.Phil. student at the Department of Sociology, Delhi University
31 March 2022

What are the fundamental assumptions that inform Hindutva representations of the past? What might we foreground to change, as Thapar has, the very terms of engagement? What might such a reformulation for our Hindutva present look like?

 

 

Introduction

I was introduced to the Past Before Us: Historical Traditions of Early North India in my first year as an undergraduate student of history. Professor Romila Thapar’s work, we were told, would help us navigate the question: Do you think early Indians lacked a sense of history? This, as I would later realise, was the first in a series of questions that frame much of the undergraduate history syllabus in the University of Delhi, a series of questions that arise from and seek to diagnose colonialism’s deep entanglement with South Asian histories and historiographies. 

Let me speak here of yet another entanglement—that between intellectual and political pursuits which shapes much of our time as students in a public university. I joined the University of Delhi in 2015 and my initiation into the space was framed by coterminous electoral victories of the Bharatiya Janata Party. We witnessed and at times experienced the contemporary Hindutva complex in its nascent form; we grappled with and attempted to articulate the feeling of being witnesses to a critical moment in the career of the Indian nation. And, we often did so by relating protest to lecture, experience to text, and the present to the past. In this sense, Professor Thapar’s work was our point of departure for the series of sometimes anachronistic, often instructive, and mostly explanatory links we started to make between the present and the past.  

I reread the Past Before Us this year as a “young scholar” invited to reflect on Thapar’s work. In the six years that separate my two engagements with the text I have, among other things, changed disciplines and recalibrated my politics. The act of rereading, to this end, also became an inadvertent exercise in self-reflection—a moment of taking stock and of coming to terms with the pitfalls of my own academic and political ways of seeing. 

Framing contexts and political circumstances, too, have changed. The Sangh Parivar has been largely successful in controlling state apparatuses and in penetrating institutional/professional spaces—one is no longer a witness to nascent experiments. “What the ‘science’ of race difference was to Nazi ideology, the discipline of history is to Hindutva” (Sarkar 2019: 152) and at present, a Hindutva history-by-omission-revision is being successfully disseminated via hashtags, media channels, executive speeches, and textbooks. The line between popular/public and professional histories has blurred; such binary oppositions, it would seem, can no longer be called upon to neutralise Hindutva narratives. 

In the Past Before Us, Thapar engages with the generalisation that early Indian society lacked a sense of history. She examines the link between this widespread denial and the work of European scholars in the colonial period. She illuminates through her work the process by which power and history entwine to produce the dominant views of a time. In many ways, a similar moment is unfolding in the present—the reordering of common sense by Hindutva narratives of the past. These narratives, as Thapar (2016) has herself shown, are rooted in the very colonial lineage that produced an ahistorical early Indian past. In this spirit, what follows are some personal reflections on the Past Before Us in an age of Hindutva. 

A Text of Power and Change

Central to the Past Before Us is the concept of the historical tradition. The historicity of this tradition is framed by the interplay of the past and the present. Historical traditions “include…a consciousness of past events relevant to or thought of as significant by a particular society…and…the recording of these events in a form which meets the requirements of that society” (Thapar 2013: 4). It involves, then, a look at the past from the standpoint of the present and, more crucially, reconstructions of the past that legitimise this present. This legitimising function of the historical tradition is a recurring motif that runs through the text and frames much of Thapar’s engagement with early Indian historiography.

    In the Past Before Us, the historical tradition is framed as a process. Particular attention is paid to changes in historical perceptions and in genres of writing contained within a tradition. Here, we may introduce another recurring motif in the text—the notion of change. The changing forms of a historical tradition derive from, and correspond to, historical changes in the larger context of which it is a part. The Itihasa-Purana tradition, for instance, transitions from embedded to externalised history with the transition from lineage to state society. Equally, it is precisely in these moments of change that the historical tradition assumes special significance—“a view of the past becomes particularly important at times of transition and points of change, for this is when the past can either be rejected, or become a model, or be used to legitimize the changing present” (Thapar 2013: 54).  

The foregrounding of the historical tradition as a process, the delineation of its association with historical change, and the emphasis given to its legitimising function make possible a reading of the Past Before Us as a text of power and change. Significant is the specific rendering it gives of both, recovering nuances that often get lost within larger narratives. It highlights, for instance, the victory of kingship over clan societies that the Ramayana narrates. Yet, at the same time, it draws our attention to the ambiguities and tensions expressed in this very epic over the transition.

     The poetics and politics of representing the past also find expression in the text. Here too, there are no clean shifts between authors and genres of a historical tradition. Bards of an earlier tradition, for instance, persist in the time of history writing dominated by scribes and Brahmanas. The relative position of social groups frame the importance they give to the Itihasa-Purana tradition and to its legitimising function—central to the kshatriya tradition, it is second-order knowledge for Vedic Brahminism. Social positions are also implicated in the politics of historical production and in the need for certain narratives to make a stronger claim to accuracy. In this, the Past Before Us speaks to the open, contested, and often fractured nature of power and, to the tentative, tensile moments that punctuate processes of broad consolidated change.

The Limits of the Alternate

The Past Before Us reflects an important shift within Thapar’s own historiographical trajectory. Moving away from her previous emphasis on historicising early Indian texts, she engages here with the distinct sensibilities embedded in them. She maps out, through an extensive historiographical survey, the ways in which the early Indian past saw the past before it. The abiding role of the social in such representations is recognised. Each society, social group, and even genre of writing has its own distinct way of reconstructing the past, and this distinctiveness has much to do with the social context(s) within which it is located. 

Two registers of this work are of particular significance—first, the emphasis on multitudes, and second, the Eurocentric perception of the premodern past that is being argued against. She writes:

 To argue over whether a particular society had a sense of history or not on the basis of our recognition of the presence or absence of a particular kind of historical tradition—one which has been predetermined as being properly historical in perpetuity—seems somewhat beside the point. (Thapar 2013: 4)  

 

In this regard, Thapar’s arguments speak to a certain postmodern sensibility and resonate with postcolonial critiques of the imperial project. Both recognise that multitudes exist across time and space, that the past is spoken of, remembered by, and laid claim to by many voices. They chip away, in their own ways, at meta-narratives, universals, absolutes and at the singularity of history. 

At the same time, a critical difference separates them. Thapar engages with and makes a case for the historical sensibilities of the early Indian past. But, in doing so, she does not recover from early texts a sense of history in the modern sense of the term. Neither is her work an attempt to “broaden the current definition of history in order to accommodate forms of writing prevalent in early India” (Thapar 2013: 681). An emphasis on positivism is retained: 

The status of history in a text has now to meet the requirements of the discipline as it is practiced in current times: the evidence has to be checked for reliability, and causality in explanation has to be based on logical analysis with as objective a generalization as possible. (Thapar 2013: 683)

 

The discipline of history and its philosophical underpinnings, in sum, remain untouched. 

It is this very history that the postmodern and the postcolonial seek to problematise. Focusing their lens on the discipline itself, they expound on its particularistic European-Enlightenment roots.  There are limits to history—it is one of the many ways of representing the past and coexists with equally valid ahistorical and anti-historical representations. Made possible by this fracturing, then, are alternate ways of reconstructing the past. 

Two aspects of such alternate histories merit special emphasis. First, they often take the form of histories from below and speak of marginalised, minority, and subaltern pasts. In this, they provide a counter-narrative to accounts of power. Second, these histories often problematise the infallibility accorded to rational validity and empirical verifiability. 

Is the representation of an early India marked by plastic surgery, stem cell therapy, and airplanes, then, an alternate history? What happens to the subversive potential of alternate histories when it becomes the very route through which hegemonic narratives might be made acceptable? Is it possible to critique Hindutva history while also making a claim for alternate histories? Is a distinction between the two possible? What are the limits of the alternate? 

Thapar’s emphasis on objectivity acquires special significance in this context. It plays a deeply political role in guarding against the misuse of history and in speaking truth to power. Whether or not this intervention is a deliberate decision is perhaps not the point. Instead, we may look to the enduring relevance of her lens as a comment on the present and on the place occupied by positivism within this present.

 

Facts: Ours and Theirs 

Let me begin this concluding section by framing positivism in a somewhat different manner. Hindutva narratives of the early Indian past speak of a golden age of scientific progress and modernity. The modern Hindu is a direct descendant of the Sanskrit-speaking Aryans that lived in this golden age. These Aryans were indigenous to the subcontinent and built an impressive civilisational matrix that stretched from the cities of the Indus Valley to the Vedic age and beyond. 

Now we know that each of these claims are ahistorical, that they do not hold when tested against evidence and are, in that, fabrications elevated to the status of history. Insofar as history involves a continuous process of rewriting, what makes Hindutva rewriting spurious is its non-adherence to the procedures and protocols that inform the discipline.

But it is the very same preoccupation with evidence that drives the contemporary Hindutva project as well. In 2018, a Reuters investigation revealed the existence of a committee appointed by the government to rewrite Indian history. It aimed to:

Use evidence such as archaeological finds and DNA to prove that today’s Hindus are directly descended from the land’s first inhabitants many thousands of years ago, and [to] make the case that ancient Hindu scriptures are fact not myth. (Jain and Lasseter 2018)

 

The committee deemed it “essential to establish a correlation between ancient Hindu scriptures and evidence that Indian civilization stretches back many thousands of years” (Jain and Lasseter 2018). In a similar vein, a committee of the Rajya Sabha tasked with considering textbook reforms has chosen to focus on “removing references to un-historical facts and distortions” (Rajya Sabha 2021).   

    My intention in drawing this parallel is not to erase differences into oblivion. Evidence in and as an abstraction, after all, does very little in bolstering assertions about the past. 

Indeed—and this is something that Thapar has continually emphasised—the veracity of a narrative depends, in large part, on the reliability of the evidence used to construct it and on the validity of the way in which this evidence is read (Bhattacharya 2021). But, perhaps, the truth value of Hindutva claims to evidentiality should be a subsidiary concern. More important is the fact of the claim itself. Both us and them, to this end, speak of distortions of the other that must be remedied and both us and them claim to remedy by speaking the language of evidence. 

How does one take on Hindutva narratives of the past in such a context? Our (historically grounded) fact for their (non)-fact? A well-intended endeavour, certainly, but one that is inclined to fail given the topography of our present. The Hindutva complex has at its disposal, more powerful and more varied means for the dissemination of their facts. Ours is also the age of post truth; it is within this context that “evidence”-backed Hindutva history thrives. 

I turn here to the Past Before Us for the alternate mode of engagement it lays out. The text is a response to a dominant colonial narrative. But—and this is crucial—it self-consciously stays away from collapse into “derivative discourse” (Chatterjee 1986). Thapar reformulates the central question and changes the terms of the debate around early Indian historiography. The centrality accorded to historical writing is what allows for the adjudication of no sense of history to be made; her response involves dislodging it from this very position of centrality. She foregrounds, instead, the notion of “historical consciousness.” Moving beyond the preoccupation with evidence (or lack thereof) of an early Indian sense of history, Thapar performs the critical task of diagnosing and critiquing the more fundamental assumptions that allow for such inferences to be made in the first place. 

What are the fundamental assumptions that inform Hindutva representations of the past? What might we foreground to change, as Thapar has, the very terms of engagement? What might such a reformulation for our Hindutva present look like? 

Mohona Chaudhuri (mchaudhuri96@gmail.com) is an M.Phil. student at the Department of Sociology, Delhi University
31 March 2022