Opinion: Role history and religion play in modern Indian politics

Written By: Raziuddin Aquil
Delhi, India Published: Feb 27, 2018, 11:49 AM(IST)

History is often used as a weapon in ideological struggles and identity-contestations. Photograph:( Others )

History is often used as a weapon in ideological struggles and identity-contestations. This is especially true in critical issues involving politics of religion. In agenda-driven histories deployed in public debates, the question of truth is set aside in favour of requirements of the time. In such debates, history is not so much about the evidence regarding what exactly happened in the past, but a matter of opinion or perspective. This is the case both in vernacular histories circulated in the public domain and in the assumptions of professional academic history. Even though the primary functions of both are different, they converge in terms of offering different vantage points in popular politics and struggles.

Within academia, religion and political culture profoundly impact the writing of history, leading to arguments, quarrels and formation of groups or schools of historiography. Thus, history of history-writing in India in the past couple of centuries has witnessed assumptions and formulations advanced from a number of standpoints. For instance, in colonial historiography – some strands of which have continued even till recent decades – colonialism was projected as something that was for the benefit of the colonised people; else, they would have remained savage barbarians with no or little sense of history. This false assertion was in conformity with the view that conquerors write history on the body of those they seek to dominate or decimate.

Countering the colonial position and showing that the conquered people eventually survive to tell their own story also, various strands of secular nationalist historiography have blamed the British colonial policies of 19th and the first half of 20th centuries for the mess the British left behind. Hindu-Muslim conflict, caste-system, economic degradation and a host of other issues are shown as constructed under the British rule. This set of scholarship also plays down the significance of religion in public life, even though it provides fodder for communal hatred and abuse. This is something which is aptly characterised by Professor Neeladri Bhattacharya – a much-respected JNU historian – as ‘predicament of secular history’.

On the other hand, Hindu communal propaganda as history continues to take ugly turns. Even serious historians belonging to the rightist camp – few as they are – come up with outlandish propositions. The best example that comes to mind is the projection of medieval India as a dark age in the right-wing historiography. It is asserted that medieval India was shrouded in darkness because there was no electricity in medieval India; this was because bigoted Muslim rulers followed Islam, which was against science! 

By contrast, and yet supplementing communal Hindu narratives, is an equally bizarre Muslim separatist scholarship, which glorifies the Islamic past in the subcontinent. It traces separate Hindu-Muslim identities back to the Arab conquest of Sindh early in the 8th century. Also, important historical figures such as Sant Kabir and Mughal emperor Akbar are treated as agents of Hinduism who sought to destroy the cause of Islam in the medieval period.

Thus, what we are generally confronted with is political propaganda peddled as history. Does it mean history-writing cannot be free from ideological control? Happily, more empirically sensitive and theoretically sophisticated researchers in recent times have led to fresh thinking. This is sought to be blocked or resisted both by secularists and right-wing political propagandists, but scholarship has continued to grow in institutions both within India and the West – especially in the United States.

New research takes head-on communally sensitive issues such as temple desecration and the question of conversion of non-Muslims to Islam. The nature of the state is being discussed with reference to rulers’ concern for law and justice for all, peace and tranquillity, welfare mechanism as well as looking for India’s own political theory based on secular principles, as in concerns of political theorists such as Rajeev Bhargava.

New studies on Akbar and Aurangzeb analyse broad-based political framework, theory and policies, which are contrasted with narrow and exclusive political strategies abusing religion for the purpose. Historical examples and philosophical insights on governing principles are used to assert that when religious beliefs run into problems with secular principles of the state in multi-cultural or multi-religious contexts, the secular principles and progressive laws must be privileged, as shown recently by an analytical philosopher, Akeel Bilgrami.

Further, questions are being raised about the need to reconsider the conventional periodisation of Indian history in ancient (Sanskrit), medieval (Persian) and modern (English) times (with the specific language of sources to be utilised). The older and simple formulations are being broken through richer source base, including judicious use of literature in the writing of history. For instance, Sufi premakhayan, or poetry of love, of which Malik Muhammad Jaisi’s Padmavat is one of the best examples, are being studied by historians and literary scholars in recent years. However, they are perhaps still not in a position to handle the muddle created in the name of artistic freedom or in the service of communal politics – as we have witnessed recently. 

In popular devotional fields, the shared and disputed terrains of Sufi-Bhakti complex reveal faultlines fraught with possibilities for shrewd cultural negotiations and brutal political violence. Two examples which may be given here are of Yogi Gorakhnath’s favourable attitude towards Sufis, who were perceived as belonging to the caste of Allah, and of Kabir’s aggressive support to the newly found fad for vegetarianism in medieval India.

In conclusion, history is a hot topic in popular politics of the public domain. Medieval Indian history is an especially contested field. Pressures from different kinds of ideological positions and politics of identities of various kinds together put serious constraints on the practice and writing of history. As indicated above, despite the challenges, scholarship has continued to grow. Current historiographical thrusts illustrate how a whole range of themes and issues are dealt with by professional historians from a variety of perspectives with reference to sources and evidence. Critical issues relating to the complex interactions between religion and political culture are no longer being swept under the carpet. 


(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)

Raziuddin Aquil

Raziuddin Aquil is Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Delhi. He is a foremost expert on Medieval Indian History, Islamic Traditions and Literary Cultures.
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