C.D. Deshmukh Memorial Lecture 2023
Romila Thapar
OUR HISTORY, YOUR HISTORY, WHOSE HISTORY? by Romila Thapar This is the text of the C.D. Deshmukh Memorial Lecture 2023 delivered by Professor Romila Thapar on 14 January 2023 at the India International Centre, New Delhi. Reprinted with the permission of India International Centre, New Delhi., , 7 pp.,
Free Review of the Week

The highly respected historian of modern Europe, Eric Hobsbawm, commenting on the relationship of history to nationalism, given that histories become prolific when a society nurtures nationalism, writes that history is to nationalism what poppy is to a heroin addict. I would add that the dependence has to be recognized and analysed.  Origins generally rise in status in our times, when they are placed in the more remote past. They then have to be legitimized by assessing evidence and accuracy. What comes from the poppy and enters the mind of the heroin addict, conjures up fantasies about a magnificent pastor otherwiseand the fantasy sustains the present. Those of you who are familiar with the counter currents of actual history as opposed to imagined history, in the India of today, or indeed have smoked pot, might appreciate the parallel!

I shall speak this evening initially on the link between history and nationalism, and subsequently about why this has the possibility of history becoming entangled with legitimizing a kind of nationalist narrative that is questioned by many historians. 

Even long-lasting cultures like ours have been punctuated by points of intense historical change. These punctuations have transformed our societies.  The changes are not arbitrary. Nationalism itself is one of these seminal points of change. By definition, nationalism should carry the entire population of a country in a nationalist movement that makes for a new society, together with its multiple requirements. Nationalism is a concept which, when it comes to be adopted, terminates the old social system and brings in an alternate society with values and structures that virtually revolutionize the existing society.  The new society is that of free citizens in an independent nation-state. Nationalist principles do not have roots in the ancient past, because the new society they give rise to is a response to current requirements, and not to those that have long since passed away.

Nationalism assumes that it brings about the uniting of communities on a substantial scale and for the first time. Their loyalty is to a new structure, namely, the nation-state. The single unitary purpose is the construction of the nation, that is of citizens forging a single national identity, as, for instance, when the Indian national movement struggled to establish a state consisting of free citizens liberated from colonial control.

But nationalism can have variant forms, ranging from a single unitary identity to divergent identities in the same society. In India, the divergence was of two new types of nationalisms: the single unitary anti-colonial one and the other being nationalisms identified by religion, the Muslim and the Hindu, growing out of the colonial construction of India.  These distinctly different nationalisms have diverse intentions. The unitary appealed to all the citizens and was anti-colonial in intention, whereas the multiform nationalism segregates specific religious identities, differentiating them from the other that is singular. Their agendas differed and the latter were tied to creating two fresh nation-states.  The agenda of religious nationalism was antagonism towards the other community. It was not specifically anti-colonial.   

The first category of unitary anti-colonial nationalism led the Independence movement.  What then was the kind of society that unitary nationalism was intending to build?  At Independence, when the polity mutated from kingdoms and the colony of earlier time, into an independent nation-state, unitary nationalism was characterized by the necessary presence of democracy and secularism. As citizens of the nation-state every person was to have equal status and equal rights.  Inevitably, democracy and secularism become essential to the rights of the citizen. These rights had never existed before. Societies of the past rarely gave every person the right to being equal or having a free status. The caste rules of the Dharmashastras, for instance, underlined inequality and the absence of such freedom. Islam too spoke of the equality of all in the eyes of Allah, but the laws of Sharia and Hadith seem not to assume that.      

Where a nation-state comes into existence, the people cease to be subjects of a ruler or a kingdom and become citizens of the state. This is a foundational change not always recognized. Democracy is adopted as the model polity. This implies that governing the state is dependent on the wishes of the people who are represented in various state bodies. Power lies not with those that govern but with the agencies that represent the citizensthe judiciary, the legislature, and the executive. The rules of government are not the arbitrary wishes of the rulers but draw on the actions of constitutional authority. The rules and intentions of the functioning of the state are recorded in the Constitution. 

The Constitution also records the fundamental rights of the citizen—the rights and obligations essential to all nation-states and their citizens but which are observed to varying degrees. These are the rights to essentials—food, water and shelter; to well-being such as health care and education; and to essentials of an equally important kindsuch as the freedom of speech and expression and social justice in the practice of equality of all.

Nationalism when it is singular hopefully unites the people, a unitary nationalism as with the anti-colonial Indian nationalism. Other categories of specific and segregated nationalisms are not intended to unify citizens but to segregate them according to identity. Segregation means that primary status is given to the group that counts as the majority or is specially selected, and the selection can be defended.  The agendas of these two are distinct and need to be understood as such. This is the point at which there is a turn to history in order to claim the legitimacy of the identities by dating them back to ancient times, and the older they are, the greater their status. 

   It is therefore with the emergence of segregated, diverse nationalisms and their versions of history required in order to justify their political ambitions that there develops a difference, or even in some cases a confrontation between the professional historians basing themselves on methodological training and procedures in researching history, and those who are not trained historians yet purvey a non-researched history. The intentions differ. The multiform group is more dependent on public support, and it tries to reformulate history to uphold the requirements of the specific majority among the citizens who are being given priority in their nationalism.  The others not of that identity may have lesser rights as citizens.  History becomes crucial to argue for the primacy of the current majority and its role in nationalism.  

In previous times the study and writing of history in various forms was left to scholars from whose midst arose the professional historians. Slowly, there was a shift in history towards the social sciences which demanded a training in reading sources, and in learning systems of analysis and in methods of analyses.  History is now a specialized discipline in which the proven reliability of evidence is crucial. There is no catechism in historical study. History is researched and written by the trained professional historian. Other views of the past are projected by the nationalisms of the many segregated groups each vying for the primacy of its particular identity. The latter are questioned or rejected by the professional historians and are in turn said to be incorrect in what they present. Many non-historians who make pronouncements on history lack training in methods of research but nevertheless pronounce upon the past with full confidence, basing themselves either on hearsay or their own imagination.  These are more frequently those that conform to the Hindutva views on history but there are others too.

History for them is just a story, a story that I narrate, or you narrate, or anybody else for that matter. Making up stories is great fun and very entertaining as we all know from having told bedtime stories to children. But when these stories are claimed as factual, then they have to be proved. They cannot be part of entertainmentespecially when they become central to the most influential of current storytellers: namely, the media of every kind.

Where nationalism ceases to be the movement of citizens from across society and is reduced to one identity which is given priority, this becomes a denial of the very important component of nationalism, namely, democracy and the secular. Democracy, which is politically crucial as it is to nationalism, is often used by non-historians as a slogan. But democracy is a recognized concept of modern times as is secularism, and both are tied to the nation-state. The historical change brought by nationalism is legitimized by insisting on its components having an ancestry in antiquity.

Let me suggest a couple of examples. The eighteenth-century French Revolution claimed some links to Greek democracy so as to legitimize the change from monarchy to the nation-state. Yet there was an absence in Athens of the concepts that moved the French. What were given the status of free citizens, arbitrarily, constituted a bare fraction of the population of Athens. The overwhelming majority were slaves and aliens who had no representation in, or rights to, governance. Imbuing governance with an ideal of democracy was an imaginative way of using the remote past to claim legitimacy for a revolutionary change in eighteenth century France. The revolution was seeking legitimacy for its call to Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, by maintaining that they had existed in ancient times. This is a familiar formulation in our times.

Indian sources mention the centrality of the gana-sanghas and gana-rajyas especially with reference to oligarchies and chiefships around the time of the Buddha. Free citizens find little mention nor do instituted methods of representation. The heads of Kshatriya families more frequently sat in the assemblies.  The Shudras and the Dasas, despite being the majority, were excluded. The panchayats of medieval times, and the village assemblies such as that of Uttaramerur, had select membership. Caste society based on varna as described in the Dharmashastras was a contradiction of democracy. The concept of the gana-sangha seems more prominent in the Buddhist texts than the Brahmanical.

Democracy, essential to a nation-state, came to India later in modern times together with nationalism and secularism. The ideals of the French Revolution were beginning to be debated by a wider audience. They were picked up in America and tied into American political thought. As every historian knows democracy and representation were discussed with the coming of the nation-state, associated with the emergence of the middle-class, with the new technologies and functions of industrialization and the changes being introduced by capitalism. It entered colonial thinking when these ideas began to be debated in the colonies.

European social theories of the nineteenth century bestowed an inferior status on the colonized. The theory of race became prominent in part to justify the control of the European over many non-European populations. To legitimize this particular type of control the argument of successful conquest was insufficient. The innate inferiority of the dark-skinned colonized people had to be firmly established. Hence the importance of what was called ‘race science’.

Any culture that defined its people as fairer skinned than another was taken as superior.  Thus, the Aryan speakers referring to the Dasas as dark was interpreted as skin colour and therefore racial inferiority. By the same token the Aryan was implicitly superior. The application of race to caste classification further clinched the segregation of the lower castes and the adivasis.

The controversy over the origins of Aryan speakers for instance is now largely an argument between most professional historians and those who claim to have appropriate knowledge.  The former locate the Aryan speakers as migrating from Central Asia in slow stages, whereas the Hindutva theory insists on their homeland being within the boundaries of India. Hindutva holds that both the Hindu and Hinduism originated in India, so they have no choice but to argue for indigenous origins. But defining the boundaries of India as with land-marked boundaries anywhere, has to contend with the fact of boundaries changing every century. The boundaries of even large kingdoms often referred to as empires were not permanent and rarely remained unchanged beyond a century or two, if that.

The study of the Aryans associated with Vedic texts is a fascinating historical example of the diverse sources and disciplines that are now required for investigating such topics.  In the nineteenth century knowing Vedic Sanskrit was sufficient for research. The focus therefore was on philology. Slowly however, evidence came in from other disciplines. Today the evidence from these different sources has to be co-related.  Archaeology in the twentieth century brought fresh questions on the interface of two diverse culturesthe Harappan and the Vedic. That there were interactions was proved through the new discipline of linguistics pointing to possible Dravidian language elements being present in the earliest Indo-Aryan. The nature of this interaction requires further analysis to clarify aspects of cultural history. The archaeology of the Peninsula and South India in particular is revealing large numbers of Megalithic sites, and at least one impressive urban centre. Clearly, there was more activity going on in the subcontinent in post-Harappan times than had been envisaged in the last century.

In recent years Aryanism has again become a contention between professional historians and others, but among those not listed as academic historians there have been a couple of serious scholars.  Initially, the Vedic Aryan culture was said to be foundational to Hinduism. This for Hindutva meant that the Aryans had to be indigenous, that is, to have originated within the boundaries of India. That the Aryan speakers were indigenous to India has been questioned in the past. Now geneticists are adding to the questioning given that some DNA analyses of post-Harappan samples of the second millennium BC show strains from Central Asian populations.  Historians working on the Vedic period have now to be proficient in handling genetic data as well, whereas the non-historians writing on the topic can let their fantasies run.  

Some of these problems are not of the immediate present but go back a couple of centuries. In the early colonial period India was said to be lacking in a sense of history since there were no ancient histories as there were among the Greeks, Romans and Chinese. The colonial power, for whom history was the key to understanding the colony they ruled, decided therefore to discover and write the history of the colony. The past of the Indian colony if thus constructed, would enable the colonial power to govern the colony the way they wanted to, and at the same time claim legitimacy from a version of Indian history that they themselves had constructed. This exercise had obvious advantages for the colonizer.

Colonial historical scholarship had a basic orientation to the Indian past.  An initial discovery was of historical origins similar to the early European. But the more purposeful intention was to demonstrate the intrinsic difference between Europe and Asia and find a distinctly dissimilar history. This therefore was formulated soon after.  Initially, William Jones working in Calcutta studied the Vedas and began to see similarities in language and mythology with the Greco-Roman. Some connections could be conceded. This was not so with other discoveries such as those of James Prinsep who deciphered the Brahmi script and Alexander Cunningham who pioneered archaeological excavation. Colonial officers working in India were enthusiastic about these activities, as also were the Indian officials for whom the vision created by this material was new. Two most influential persons working in England both declined to visit India to consult Indian scholars. They wrote from their study of and reflection on, the texts. Their interpretation of the Indian data led to the construction of a dissimilar society from the early British.  These two were James Mill and Frederick Max Muller.

James Mill wrote the first modern history of India, The History of British India, in 1817 and thereafter. Much of it was his personal perspective of the history as it might have been.  Mill maintained that Indian history was that of two nations, the Hindu and the Muslim, quite distinctly separate and constantly in conflict. It is significant that he identified the nation in this instance by religious identities and this was accepted by other scholars. Indian history was periodized into the earliest Hindu period when Hinduism was powerful, followed by the domination of Islamic rulers, and finally came the British who controlled events in the third period. This periodization deeply coloured the interpretation of Indian history. It has been discarded now by professional historians, arguing that its single and universally applied explanation of religion as the prime cause of every major historical activity, was untenable. It continues to be used however, by some who are not historians.

What were the implications of Mill’s history? The Hindu period was reconstructed primarily from Sanskrit texts. The Muslim period was based primarily on the Persian and Turkish chronicles of the Sultanate and Mughal courts.  The focus was on victorious invasions, the destruction of temples and the victimization of Hindus to highlight the effectiveness of their conquest. Most chronicles written as eulogies to rulers would tend to focus on these conquests specially of rulers newly establishing themselves. The British period history was based largely on the records of the East India Company followed by those of the British Government. 

This is the kind of history that professional historians see as an attempt to whittle down every cause to a single onereligious differenceand ignore or minimize other causes. It was a travesty of the way serious history was being written and something of a joke when compared to the careful enquiries that European historians were making into European history.

For example, much of European thinking on Asian history initially put the study of Asia into a mould labelled Oriental Despotism. Asian societies were projected as static and registering no changes. The cultural pattern was like a pyramid with a highly despotic ruler at the peak controlling all resources through his administration. Those that laboured to produce the wealth, were at the base of the structure and were immersed in poverty. The despot was only concerned with displaying his wealth and living well.  The ‘Asiatic Mode of Production’ was derived from this mould, as also some ideas of Max Weber and others, especially on Indian society and religion. These attempts at explanations differed by contrast from the careful investigation of European history. It was not until the later twentieth century that European and Asian scholars investigating Asian data discovered a different historical reality, and Oriental Despotism was slowly discarded.

Mill’s two-nation theory had another fall-out effect. It made an impact on politics in colonial India. The veracity of the theory was assumed and was not debated in depth as it should have been. It became the source for projecting two religious nationalisms emerging at this time, the theory being taken to provide political and historical legitimacy. The segregated but conflictual nationalisms based on religious identities differed from the unitary anti-colonial nationalism. Secular democratic nationalism focused on the singular movement for Independence, whilst the two religious nationalisms—Muslim and Hindu—divided the nation between them and severely demarcated the two communities. Muslim religious nationalism culminated in Pakistan and the Hindu is well on the way towards a Hindu Rashtra. The colonial projection it seems is succeeding, despite the autonomy from colonial control. It has become a kind of inheritance from colonialism.  

From the historical perspective we may well ask whether the division had evidence to support it. It is claimed that it happened when the Muslims invaded India and came to power. What was said to be its irrefutable evidence was that the Muslims over the last thousand years victimized the Hindus, treating them as enslaved.  This has now become a political slogan of Hindu religious nationalism.  The image projected is that of unalloyed violence and aggression of one against the other. Further that the Hindus were socially ostracized and above all, forcibly converted. They also had to pay a tax as non-Muslims. Politicians and others who should know better use public occasions to endorse this theory.

It is being said that now that the Hindus are in power, they should have the right to avenge themselves and by implication, in the same way. Professional historians have questioned this theory to test its veracity. The historical sources researched by professional historians read differently and do not rejuvenate this view of colonial historians. 

The dictionary tells us that to victimize is to make a victim of a person or a specific group of people, to cheat, swindle and defraud them, or to deny them any freedom, or to slaughter them in the manner of a sacrificial victim. Victimization is not unknown to most pre-modern societies. Those having access to power and wealth resorted to humiliating and harming those without either. Upper caste Hindus have been familiar with this practice for more than two millennia. The Dalits, lower castes, untouchables were segregated, and it was claimed that their touch was polluting. They were placed in a separate category of those without or outside caste, labelled the avarnas. This extreme form of segregation was practiced among all religions in India, although records link it more persistently to upper-caste Hindus.

It seems that even on conversion to other religions, and especially those which in theory observed the equality of all, this segregation was nevertheless maintained. As a category it may well have been the larger in numbers. This is why we have Muslim pasmandas, Sikh mazhabis, dalit Christians, and such like. Yet, these are religions that formally believe in all of mankind being created equal.  It is somewhat striking however that this differentiation at the level of the lower castes and outcastes was not directed primarily to a religious identity but was linked to non-castes and the absence of caste status. Many questions arise that are fundamentally important to our society. Are practices of this kind directed less to particular religious communities and more to the large numbers outside varna society? Are these practices defined more by caste than by other identities or do they change with purpose and intent?  Significantly in Sanskrit sources Muslims are generally not referred to as Muslim but by ethnic labels such as Yavana, Tajik, Turushka, etc.; the last of these was the most commonly used.

Since so much of crucial importance has happened as a result of what was projected as religious antagonism, and even victimization, let’s just look at some instances of what were the actual relations between the two religious communities, the Hindu and the Muslim, and in the period of the last thousand years. 

Starting at the level of the elites we know that quite a few Hindu royal families remained at the highest social status. They remained at the head of the administration in their erstwhile kingdoms and were given the continuing status and title of raja. The politics of administration required some continuation. Their incomeagrarian and commercialwas sufficient for maintaining their aristocratic style of living. 

Traders from Arabia and East Africa trading with the west coast of India go back many centuries, even before the birth of Islam. The extensive trade touched points along the Indian Ocean Arcthe coastline that went continuously from East Africa up the coast of Arabia, on to the coast of Gujarat and then south along coastal India to Kerala. There was considerable familiarity among traders on each side.  Arab traders after the spread of Islam settled in the flourishing towns trading along this coast. Their invading activities were limited to a part of Sind.

At many places along this coast new societies evolved, and some of these flourished particularly in coastal India. Cultures intermingled when Arab settlers married locally, as many migrants do when settling in new places. Social identities and religious sects were a mix of Islam with existing religions of the area.  This resulted in new religious movements, many of which are still prominent—the Khojas, Bohras, Navayaths, Mappilas and such like.

It also led to the employment of Arabs in local administration. The Rashtrakutas in the ninth century AD appointed a Tajik/Arab Governor of the region of Sanjan in coastal Deccan. A Rashtrakuta inscription records the grant of land made to a Brahmana by a Tajik/Arab officer on behalf of the Rashtrakuta king. The revenue from this went towards donations to local temples as well as to the Parsi Anjuman, since Parsi merchants were also settled in the area. The majority of officers at this level of administration were members of the local elite and therefore largely Hindu, and many continued in the administration of the Sultans when they became the rulers.

Appointing local persons to high office was a practice that went back centuries, providing closer control over local matters. This may well be a reason for Muslim rulers appointing Rajputs to high office. The Mughal economy was in the trusted hands of the Vazir, Raja Todar Mal. Raja Man Singh of Amber, a Rajput, commanded the Mughal army at the battle of Haldighati. He defeated another Rajput who was an opponent of the Mughals—Maharana Pratap. Pratap’s army with its large contingent of Afghan mercenaries had as a commander Hakim Khan Suri, a descendant of Sher Shah Suri. One could ask whether this battle was essentially a Hindu-Muslim confrontation, since both religious identities had participants on each side in a complex political conflict. Rajput clans had differing loyalties among themselves and the imperial power. The Kacchwaha Rajputs had marital relations with the Mughals and worked closely with them, and the Sisodia Rajputs had conflicts with the Mughals.  Therefore, the two fought on opposite sides. Regaining ancestral kingdoms was on the agenda of both Rana Pratap and Hakim Khan Suri.

Hindus working in the Mughal administration in high offices were mainly from the upper castesthe Brahmanas, Kshatriyasand Kayasthas. There are also references to well-established Jainas being associated with the administration. This was virtually a continuation of the earlier system of the higher administration being in the hands of the upper castes, more particularly the Brahmanas and the Kayasthas. We learn much from the writings of the Brahmana Chandra Bhan who held the highest offices in the court of Aurangzeb and has commented on the activities of the emperor, among other things.

The intervention of Hindu chiefs in the politics of the Mughal court was substantial. One instance that went on for a long period was that of Mughal relations with Bundelkhand. The Bundela raja, Bir Singh Deo, who was close to Jahangir and held one of the highest Mughal mansabs/ranks of revenue assignment, was so embroiled in Mughal court politics that he was linked to the assassination of the chief chronicler and close friend of Akbar, Abul Fazl. 

Among the more impressive symbols of political power used by various rulers right through Indian history were immensely large pillars inscribed with the orders and reflections of the king. Inscriptions on stone tended to be the more permanent records of any activity being thus recorded.  The Mauryan emperor Ashoka set up pillars in the heart of his empire, the inscriptions on which explained his governance and some of his policies, apart from other matters. It was a way of directly communicating with subjects.  Later rulers, wishing to participate in the past glory of the country that they ruled over, would either add their message or reposition the pillar. The latter act was in order to borrow the glory of their predecessors or to assert their own victories, even though they were generally unaware of what the inscription said, or who were the authors. What was the meaning of this re-location of pillars? Was it celebrating the victory of the Sultans, or was it a link to the history of earlier times, or something of both? The pillars were not destroyed but even though difficult to transport, were carried over long distances and relocated with pride in places treated with respect by the rulers in power.  

One of the Ashokan pillars carries the stamp of an extensive historical statement. Currently in a central position in the Agra fort, re-located there by a Mughal, it has engraved on it a large body of Ashokan edicts, as well as the famous prashasti/eulogy of the Gupta ruler Samudragupta. This latter inscription cuts into the first few lines of the inscription of Ashoka, suggesting that probably the earlier inscription could no longer be read. A few brief lines of Feroz Shah Tughlaq come next amidst some graffiti. The inscriptions culminate in a genealogy, engraved in the beautiful nastaliq script, of the Mughal emperor, Jahangir. That the inscription provides the official history of the descent of the family, speaks clearly about its intention. The pillar is a remarkable object encapsulating the Indian past, used by three major emperors over three millennia and in three languages and scripts—the object of pride in a continuity of great Indian cultures.

Feroz Shah when he first came across the Ashokan pillars, was disappointed that the texts could no longer be read by the learned Brahmanas. He was not convinced by the exaggerated stories he was told about the pillars being the staffs of the hero Bhima in ancient times. What he and others might have made of the statements of Ashoka in the context of changed historical times, would have resulted in an invigorating discussion. Feroz Shah had the pillars transported with much effort and organization to various important locations. One was placed like a surrogate crown firmly on top of his citadel at Kotla in Delhi, where it still stands and could once be seen from miles around. Was Feroz Shah anxious for a link with the past because his mother was a Bhatti Rajput from Punjab, or was he interested in displaying a stunning historical object that also brought him to the attention of all?  Among those that visit Kotla in our times, people of every religion, few know about Ashoka or Feroz Shah, but some stay for a while to seek the barkat/blessings of those now dead but believed to inhabit the place as invisible spirits. 

Significantly, the Sultans and the Mughals did not uproot these pillars and replace them with their own, nor did they destroy them, not even those that had fallen and lay scattered. They re-located them in places regarded as special such as forts, citadels, mosques and such like and treated them with respect. The original locations were not accidental and had been carefully planned to make a point with the public to whom Ashoka had addressed his edicts. The Gupta period relocation of one pillar was also not incidental. Similarly, the Sultans and Mughals also thought carefully about the place for re-location since this too conveyed a message to the public. Were they also intrigued by the pillars as symbols of authority from the pre-Islamic period? Did they possibly draw elements of their own legitimacy from them?  Were they attempting to link their history with pre-Sultanate times? And what might have been the comments of the orthodoxy of both religionsHindu and Muslimon these activities? The orthodoxy is likely to have disapproved given that none could read what was originally written on the pillars.

The complexities of politics were not the only links between the Muslim rulers and the ruled.  Marriage alliances were intended to strengthen social bonding. These were viewed as a means of easing political relations and winning allies. The Mughal royal family married into Kacchwaha Rajput royal families of high status.  Since Muslims were viewed as people not of any varna, and since some were in any case alien, they fell into the category of mleccha as ranked by upper caste Hindus. Did these Rajput ruling families lose face marrying into a mleccha family even if it was the imperial family? Apparently not. Was it, on the contrary, a matter of pride for them that they were marrying ‘up’ at least on the political scale, as it were? There was of course no love-jehad in those days!  Memoirs and autobiographies do not suggest that these were forced marriages since sociability among them on both sides was applauded. Court paintings of the imperial ateliers and book illustrations show many facets of the culture brought by the Hindu wivesparticularly celebrating festivalswhich appear to have been assimilated and enjoyed.

The aristocracy among Muslims socialized with Hindus, yet well-to-do Hindus categorized this aristocracy as mlecchathey lacked varna identities. An inscription issued by a wealthy merchant of Delhi in the fourteenth century describes the current ruler, Muhammad bin Tughlaq as a Turushka (that is, of Turkish origin), and these are mleccha. No trader would have used this term for a Sultan in any derogatory sense as that would have been the end of the trader. It could only refer to the Sultan having no caste identity, as was often what it meant. It is also used in the sense of being culturally alien.

Low caste Hindus, as well as those that had no firm caste identitycould qualify as avarnas/without a varna identity. Those among them regarded as untouchable and polluting were also mleccha.  The fourteenth century text, the Sarva-darshana-samgraha, states categorically that the Shramanasin which category are included Buddhists, Jainas and Charvakas, and also the Turushkasare all called nastikasnon-believers in deity and lacking in caste status. The Turushkas/Turkish Muslims did believe in a deityAllah, but he was not a Hindu deity.  

Depicting an altogether different social group there is a rather unusual document of the early seventeenth century that provides us with a perspective on the life and thoughts of a merchant and his community of that time.  This is the Ardhakathanaka, a lengthy autobiographical poem written in Braj Bhasha Hindi by Banarsidas in the time of Akbar. The author’s grandfather was the diwan/Minister to Lodhi Khan, the Nawab of Bengal. It presents a view of Mughal times from the perspective of the Jaina merchant community living in Agra and Banaras, with extensive trading networks in other towns. Jaipur alone had fifty-two highly active markets. Problems with certain Mughal officers who tried to extort money from the rich merchants are mentioned in passing. These demands are said to have made no difference to the wealth of the merchants which remained undiminished. 

The composition has detailed descriptions of religious practices, the places of pilgrimage, the rituals, the deities they worshipped. Banarsidas was briefly a practicing Shaiva but very soon returned to being an ardent Jaina, the religion of his family and in which he was deeply read. A controversial but popular Jaina movement was started in Banaras in his lifetime that he writes about.  There is no mention in these reflections of any victimization. The Jainas were confident of the stability of their religion.

The other crucial historical sources, relatively less studied are the many inscriptions. Some are official documents, but many refer to broader social life. In the fourteenth century, the Qutab Minar in Delhi was struck by lightning and required repairs. The masons who repaired it left a scatter of inscriptions all over, embedded at various points in the Minar. The language is Hindi, or occasionally faulty Sanskrit, engraved in the Nagari script.

Significantly the dates are in the Samvat era and not the Hijri era. The name of the Sultan, under whose patronage the repairs were carried out is mentioned, but just that.  The dynastic succession goes interestingly from Tomar and Chauhan Rajputs to the Shakasthe last being migrants from Central Asia who came around the Christian era, but whose name was sometimes applied to those who came in medieval times. These inscriptions were composed largely by Brahmana authors, a few being mentioned by name. Those responsible for doing the repairs are mentioned. There was an architect Chahada, the son of Devapala. The masons are also named—Lashman, Nana, Solha, Lola, Harimani Gaveri and such like. They were all Hindus.  The inscriptions conclude with naming the deity they worship, often Ganesh, and more frequently the particular deity of craftsmen, Vishvakarma, by whose grace they say, the job was done.  Invoking their deity clarifies that it was not forced labour, nor that of converts.  Such inscriptions are not unique to the Qutab Minar as they are also found on other buildings.   

Let me conclude by asking the obvious question. Given all this activity of Hindus at every social level, and across time in the second millennium AD, what does this tell us about inter-community relations?  Shouldn’t the educated Indians of today, not to mention others, all inheritors of this history, see the situation more clearly and understand it? As with fake news, fake anything creates immense problems of what to accept and what to discard. For us historians, studying the past means understanding how the past came to bethrough a logical and rational explanation. If we are to understand the roots of our culture, we have to comprehend inter-community relations of the pastboth the harmonious and the conflictual—and be able to explain what had happened.  Why have certain controversies arisen, in present times and not earlier, such as the theory that Hindus were victimized for a thousand years? How do we analyse the evidence pertaining to these? Why is it crucial to separate that which can be proved from that which is fantasy or hearsay?  My plea is that the history taught to our children and grandchildren in schools should be based on reliable evidence and should preferably be the more thoughtful history of professional historians.

By taking up the theme of inter-community relations, I am not arguing that relations between communities identifying themselves by religion, over the last thousand years, or even earlier, have always been amicable. Earlier too there were problems that we gloss over. The grammarian Patanjali two millennia ago says that the relations between Brahmanas and Shramana (the two pillars of religion in pre-Islamic India), were comparable to that between the snake and the mongoose.  Or Kalhana who writes in the eleventh century that Hindu kings looted the wealth of temples when there was a fiscal crisis in Kashmir.  Occasional inscriptions of defeated Hindu kings accuse their mleccha conquerors of killing cows and Brahmanas. Another aspect of inter-community relations is that there is always an interface between cultures, some confrontational and some adaptive, resulting in diverse new cultures and religious sects. These emerge as a natural process. They have to be studied from the sources, analysed and explained.

Do we know this? Do we take the trouble to recognize that the discipline of history, taught to us and what we then read, can help us understand our culture, the people we live with, our attitudes to religion, our rights and obligations as citizens of a nation-state, among many other things?  Do we check if and why there were situations of confrontations sandwiched between harmonious times, and what caused each? How does the impact of peace or of aggression determine the creation of our culture? Every religion proclaims that it knows the truth about life and even the afterlife.  Who can speak about the latter?  Perhaps the dead do speak!  History requires our pushing ourselves more to asking questions and understanding ourselves and the world we live in. The reality often lies behind the cloud of our surround. 

To return to the metaphor of Eric Hobsbawm.

Should we let the relationship between the poppy and the heroin addict remain as it is? Or should we insist that the heroin addict must question the visions seen by her or him? Or, should we re-assess the quality of the opium?  All knowledge advances by asking questions of it. My ultimate question this evening is, should we not ascertain the veracity of existing knowledge to come closer to the actual past?



This is the text of the C.D. Deshmukh Memorial Lecture 2023 delivered by Professor Romila Thapar on 14 January 2023 at the India International Centre, New Delhi. Reprinted with the permission of India International Centre, New Delhi.


Romila Thapar is Professor Emerita, Indian History, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.