Persistence of ‘secular’ histories and their porous narratives

Manu Pillai and Anirudh Kanisetti have been two writers who attempt to present their understanding of India’s past in a style and prose that can fancy more discerning readers bought on popular fiction. While it is doubtful if they present any original research, they certainly lay before a much larger audience, distilled views from more serious academic studies in racy and elegant prose. Otherwise much of social sciences and historical research are transacted in obtuse language that can intimidate and deter many. Yet social science scholarship is very subjective and over the years the conflict paradigm has dominated its practice. This perspective is not without its problems for it imagines an eternally divided world from the past where matters have always worked against the putatively disadvantaged communities at the hands of a propertied minority.  While no doubt hierarchies are obnoxious, we can also see how communities in the past have sought to combat the vileness, the oppression, exploitation and pathologies that accrue from extreme hierarchies, to forge other kind of solidarities to harmonise the society.  This is where Emile Durkheim’s sociology is truly remarkable, who set the roadmap for such scholarship that looks at societies as collectives, congregating around symbols, rituals and institutions but which alas, in India at least does not have much purchase. Yet the very (Marxists, post Marxists) academicians who otherwise are not charmed by possibilities of cultural unity in much of ancient and early medieval India are more than eager to provide several instances of acculturation and enculturation in late medieval and early modern period which were predominantly Islamic monarchies. Between both Manu Pillai and Anirudh Kanisetti this inconsistent view is repeatedly echoed in their books and several articles, sometimes tacitly and often explicitly. In many ways their writings are being ventriloquial of the several academic pieces that have been maintaining this forked view for long. 

Skewed and selective readings 
For the vein of studies on India’s cultural past in Marxist-liberal paradigms, the existence of any Hinduness to its ancient civilisational past has always sought to be undermined. Hindu, Hinduism and Hinduness is often dismissed as a colonial invention. Buddhism, Jainism which originated in India is seen to be a revolt against Hinduism, a Hinduism where associations are exclusively drawn and limited to the Vedic period. In this over pervading discourse subsequent social changes are established purely as being in a contestatory relationship with Vedic era where latter’s scriptures, priestly dominance, caste were its sole defining features that were inherently offensive. Buddhism, Jainism and several movements like that of Bhakti are presented as developments which were not just not Hindu but even undermine the idea of a Hindu collective. Some scholars do allude to some kind of evolutionary process in pre-Islamic society but still loathe to refer them as ‘Hindu’. Further what Anirudh Kanisetti argues in his magnum opus Lords of the Deccan (critiqued here) the persistent and savage feuds in Deccan and south India between Pallavas, Chalukyas, Rashtrakutas, Cholas, Hoyasalas negates possibilities of gleaning any unified consciousness, particularly faith based or culture based. Then another standard red herring cast before those who make a case for a Hindu past in India is how several social cleavages like caste system and the oppression that was characteristic to such stratified societies obviated the possibilities of a united Hindu consciousness. 

However not just the scabbard bedecked with such arguments but the actual sword itself when pulled out, is cutting sharp and ruthlessly severs any opposing arguments. So contra certain robust and persisting perceptions, there’s lot to gloat under Islamic rule as Manu Pillai’s Rebel Sultans: The Deccan from Khilji to Shivaji makes a case. In shoring such arguments he is not alone for there is a strong and long lineage of this very syncretic view apparently sanctioned by no less than our freedom movement, with Gandhi and Nehru being its loudest champions. Much of the same historiography that has looked askance at possibilities of looking at Hindu consciousness anytime in India’s historical epoch save in colonial period, go overboard in presenting a very plural, tolerant and harmonious ethos of society and polity under Islamic monarchies. There’s little undermining if not entire denial of Islamic theology being fundamental to the political, religious and economic policies of the late medieval states. So let it be the Delhi Sultanate empires, the Mughals, the Bahamanis including the Adil Shahis, Nizam Shahis and Qutub Shahis of Deccan (the subject of  Manu Pillai’s book) the Bengal sultanate and Tipu Sultan, the focus of such historiography is integration of the Islamic Persianate culture to the multicultural society of the subcontinent obtained before the establishment of the putative Islamic states. Indeed do note that to pad their pluralistic narratives, the Islamic epoch is seen adding to the multicultural society that India had already been. But in no way was it ‘Hindu’. That there were so many instances of slaughter, conversion, vandalism, wanton destruction of Hindu, Buddhist and Jaina places of worship is made light of and presented as exceptional. These brutal excesses have been highlighted painstakingly with concrete evidence in number of instances by diligent Meenakshi Jain and Sita Ram Goel, but whose efforts however are casually put to sword by left-secular historians. The latest endeavour by Vikram Sampath on the Gyan Vapi mosque at Kashi is another valiant attempt to highlight repeated bigotry wreaked on Kashi Vishwanath temple by not just Aurangazeb but sultans of Delhi from centuries before. Nevertheless such numbers and instances are dismissed as exaggerations or caveated with several qualifiers - the deed was more an instance of political disciplining and often spurred by economic requirements. The Maratha recklessness is another red herring argument posed by such historians whose actions often resulted in death and destruction of Hindus themselves. On the other hand instances of absorption of several ‘Hindu’ customs, practices, promotion of Sanskrit and other regional languages, the inclusion of several natives in administrative hierarchy and political system of these late medieval states undermines, as such scholarship has it, the idea of an Islamic theocratic state or society. In fact the few so called Hindu monarchs and the states that they built like Shivaji, the Vijayanagara and Marathas were equally bought into the Persianate culture where several Muslims were in their employ vested with military to fiscal responsibilities and administrative structures grafted on Islamic states’. 

Shifting identities or fixed? A difficult inquiry…
It is in this context that Manu Pillai in this piece, raises questions of the historical validity of renaming Ahmednagar as Ahilyanagar.  As such one cannot quarrel with some of the facts that his piece in Times of India Ed. page column on March 16 presents (the image of the article on top). However it’s not the specifics of the arguments I contest but the narrative within which his facts are embedded. To critique such narratives, another aspect of social life other than religion that invites scrutiny by ‘progressive’ historiography needs relooking into.  While on late medieval and early modern periods the rather harmonious pluralism under its Islamic monarchs is overdrawn, but not just epochs before late medieval but across time, an eternally perpetuating oppression and exploitation is highlighted as Hinduism’s damned given. It may be argued that drawing comparisons between social stratification and faith based divisions are misleading for they represent different registers. However as far as both represent social divisions, treating them as similar should hold up but the different discourse that undergirds such studies to drive their arguments is to be noted.

So I obviously refer to the sociology of caste, caste animus and its concomitantly engendering  prejudice, oppression, exploitation established as a default in Indian sociological and historical studies. Notwithstanding certain validity of such truistic perceptions, many studies also suggests certain contrarian insights. The so called marginalised fraternities rather than being eternally trapped to their low born status did move up the social ladder as and when political-economic changes afforded such possibilities. Also these communities’ political support to competing, patrimonial potentates presented opportunities of social mobility. Mobility and social change also happened when groups designated as inferior migrating to regions where their labour specialisation was sought after, gave them economic heft and the stigma attached to their social status rendered irrelevant. Indeed by 17th century trading domains, saw influx of members from disparate backgrounds of no ascribed or sanctioned ritual status and different professional (jati) lineage. The peasants-artisans continuum often extended into trading networks, as by 18th century textile had become both an important industry and its export into European market brought many communities into the merchant world. Of course from ancient eras differing artisan communities from masons, to potters to smiths, to weavers and farmers notwithstanding notions of ritual pollution were yet integrated into a functioning whole despite some tensions, warts and seams. Works of Nicholas Dirks, David Washbrook, Sumit Guha, Kanaklatha Mukund, Tirthankar Roy among others bring such nuanced understanding to our otherwise templated and rather static construct of Hindu society as an ossified and stagnant entity. 

Therefore history plays out in different ways and every matter of investigation from our pasts requires objective assessments even when we may have certain overarching theories and perspectives to guide us. Research and probings reveal several nuances and exceptions undermining certain pre conceived narratives which requires mainstreaming as well.

Meenakshi Jain

Sitaram Goel

Understanding hegemony 
Nevertheless it would be rather a wilful fancy to reject caste system as either non-existent and all constructed largely by colonial and enlightenment epistemology with Eurocentricity and possibly  tainted by Christian theology. Even from times of Buddha to Bhakti where a Ramanuja, Basava, Kabir, Ravidas etc their lives and precepts at many levels was a response to social discrimination and oppression on account of caste. Though caste certainly did not become Hinduism’s essence which Ambedkar too sadly tagged Hinduism with as its intrinsic, caste did nevertheless has a deep historicity.  While it could have served a political economy of yore with a culturally constituted division of labour its obnoxious normativity of ascribing hierarchy and endowing an inferior status to most working classes, a repugnance which was and is opportunistically invoked to stymie social change. Particularly post colonialism and beginnings of modernity social identities acquired the character of permanence and castes’ hitherto nebulousness, fluid and flexible gave way to enhanced discreteness and as an eternally fossilised social constituent. Further the caste ideology in all its theoretical import (from dharamshastras) which only had a sporadic, selective and tenuous control on civil society praxis, now became the key arbitrator. The jati if not varna ideology of according ritual status congealed in ways where being faithful, to textual prototypes, in all its abstractness became sacred. Hierarchy appeared sanctified and shift to democratic governance where social identities and economic disparities intermesh, ironically enough has made caste ideology more potent where communities either assume their unique status as one of vulnerability if not superiority or present themselves as eternally condemned. However rather than assuming a winner takes it all or zero sum position that can lead to brutal conflicts in perpetuity, a kind of hegemonic strategy is recoursed upon by caste groups to accommodate and adjust, yet ensure their pole position to draw exclusive privileges and favours from state and powers that be. Typically hegemony implies cooption, appropriation, selective compromise where power is vested with those high on social hierarchy. In this hegemonic strategy strangely enough, caste annihilation position too as a rhetorical assertion is not amiss. So in whatever complexity the actual workings of jati pans out the existence and persistence of an egregious caste ideology can’t be ignored or denied. 

Likewise even as we have several instances of Islamic states or monarchies being accommodative and inclusive of Hindus, the persistence of Islamic hegemony can’t be denied either. The frequent assault, slaughter, forced conversions, wanton destruction was default but hegemony implies tactical moves involving certain accommodation and benevolence vis the social context prevailing at the time.  And with Hinduism’s immanent character being one of adaptation and absorption, Hindus were segued into the Persianate cultures of the Islamic states through hegemony and not just brutal repression. There are enough and more evidence that point to the sanguinary character of Islamic monarchs but which popular scholars like Manu Pillai, Anirudh Kanisetti, Rana Safvi or William Dalrymple (and not surprisingly one finds each endorsing the other and use to promote their respective books!) mirroring their purist academic kins, underplay and ignore in an attempt to keep afloat their tenuous arguments of composite culture, the Ganga-Jumna tehzeeb and the seeming catholicity of Muslim monarchs - and let’s not forget Sufi saints here whose inclusivism is often over valorised even when many were as bigoted and calculative - if not Islam itself.

The need for robust narratives 
Therefore to reiterate the oft quoted insight of E H Carr, by itself facts don’t constitute objective truths but how we place them in certain discourse and narrative. The past is thus more imagined than real and unfortunately rather than discipline of history enlightening us to this insight, reinforces the rather polarised view where likes of Pillai and Kanisetti even with their superior methodological prowess don’t help. Admittedly in such a fashion neither do likes of Meenakshi Jain or Rajiv Malhotra on the other.

A continued multiculturalism inherent to Hindu society’s and Hinduism normative character and its pluralistic evolving when encountering social changes wrought from within and from external factors like institutionalised Islamic intrusions, is certainly a far better way of relating to the past today. But to see multiculturalism, firstly emerging from deracinated pre-Islamic societies void of any Hinduness to it and secondly emphasising diversities substantive value, its reflective and agential worth coming to its collective own, only under freedom struggle, is to deny the historicity of Indian inclusivism which was patently Hindu. To see partition largely through the ‘divide and rule’ shenanigans of the colonial British is to further undermine the fact that Islamic dynasts even when sparring with each other like for example Mughals vis Bijapur and Golconda does not explain how non-Muslims were seen as the greater enemy and imputed with a default inferior and contemptible status. Islamic crusading zeal - jihad wasn’t going anywhere, a standard they lapsed into, to deal with one part of their conquering fervour, which also did bring them into conflict with fellow dynasts. Accommodation, acceptance and tolerance of the non-faithful was tenuous, opportunistic and transitory which could anytime and frequently make way for extremely bigoted action. As suggested, a tacit interweaving was at best hegemonic. So an ascribing within the Islamic theology of the non-Muslim as the ‘other’ - an infidel kaafir was a constant unvarying.  A separate Islamic nation then was certainly going to free Muslims of India with certain collective anxiety, an antidote to their faith induced schizoid selves. 

Yet the desacralised nationalism which our constitution too attempts, basing itself on apparent secular modernity of national movement, has a very narrow purchase. In many ways it is even set to derail and misconstrue modernity by restricting its more inclusive and flexible worth that can be consistent with pluralistic Hindu ethos and the many cultures that it nurtured.

Therefore for all such denials, inconsistent approach and studies that disturbs my conscience and even angers my otherwise cosmopolitan self. And further for zealots of Hindu identity, a not a very difficult, legitimate and historical ask of dominant Indian historiography and Indian secular politics to so respect and validate such patent historical truths - which is Hinduism’s intrinsically and yet historically valid pluralist character on which a more robust national identity can be built, has never been forthcoming. Therefore such calculated indifference painfully grates, hurts and enrages. Nothing but prejudice, bad faith, wanton mischief abetted by warped ideologies and misplaced guilt psychology seem to explain their indifference. I aver that such denials among other duplicitous, hypocritical and historical lapses of India’s liberal-secular fronts, resulted in greater anger making Hindutva politics more potent and powerful today and in fact sometimes absurd. That Hindutva champions often make these claims not in a very cogent and scholarly rigorous fashion and rely more on rhetoric and bombast is true and this galls me often. But this in itself does not make Hindutva’s ontology fascist or anti-democratic. Hindutva needs to further rework its arguments in consonance to modern social science scholarship going beyond those arguments set by Savarkar or of Golwalkar or Hegdewar. Yet in larger politics of how we imagine our pasts, which goes beyond merely establishing atomised facts, the renaming of Aurangabad to Ahilyanagar or tomorrow of Ahmedabad to Karnavati or Hyderabad to Bhagyanagar is not without its merits or even rewriting history and its textbooks. (So many of my earlier posts have dealt with this) The narratives in latter context becomes more important and indeed credible even when some facts are played fast and lose. This in contrast to what liberal-secular scholarship that likes of Dalrymple, Safvi, Pillai and Kanisetti represent (but therefore not necessarily progressive and emancipatory) who may get facts right in very discrete terms but embedded in fallible and questionable narratives.