August 17, 2015

India as a historical project: A failure of the imagination (Hartosh Singh Bal)

caravan magazine

India as a historical project: A failure of the imagination
By HARTOSH SINGH BAL | August 15, 2015

In different ways, both the Sangh’s project of history and the secular project of national history, whatever their contours, suffer from the same disease; the need to locate India in history rather than see it as the creation of the unique ongoing experiment of shared values that began in 1947.

Nations are defined by a shared sense of history; republics are defined by a shared sense of values. This vital distinction is often lost when liberals, conservatives and radicals—whether Sanghis or Marxists—turn the debate over the idea of India into a battle over history.

There is indeed a civilizational idea that is evoked by the term India, but that is not how the term is invoked or defined when it is used in the Constitution to describe the Republic of India. The Preamble of the Constitution begins by stating, “The People of India, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic.” It goes on to define the set of values—justice, liberty, equality and fraternity—to be shared by those who constitute this Republic. The only terms then, that remained to be defined in this commitment to a shared set of values relate to what India is. This question concerns the definition of the territory of the Republic, and who the people of India are, which follows from the definition of citizenship in this Republic. The Constitution goes on to state:

Name and territory of the Union –

1) India, that is Bharat, shall be a Union of States.

2) The states and territories thereof shall be as specified in the First Schedule.

3) The territory of India shall comprise –

a) the territories of the States;

b) the Union Territories specified in the First Schedule; and

c) such other territories as may be required

According to our Constitution then, the geography of India is a notion that is only described through the bureaucratic listing of territories in the First Schedule, and these territories can change at any point of time. This could not be further from the idea of a sacred and unchanging geography that the Hindutva Right would like to imagine. The Constitution puts paid to any idea of a historical project with equal felicity as it dispenses with any notion of geography that is rooted in the idea of nationalism.

Citizenship at the commencement of the Constitution. –

At the commencement of the Constitution every person who has his dominion in the territory of India and –

a) who was born in the territory of India; or

b) either of whose parents was born in the territory of India; or

c) who has been ordinarily resident in the territory of India for not less than five years immediately preceding such commencement ,shall be a citizen of India.

This is a remarkable statement. In theory, it accords the rights of citizenship in India to any person who satisfies these conditions. For this definition, a person’s ethnic origins—Russian, German, Punjabi or Gujarati—did not matter. In light of this extraordinary breadth of vision, it is bad enough that the Hindutva right wants to import the demon of nationalism into a part of the world that should have no place for it, but it is worse that several historians want to answer this challenge with their own ideas of a national history. Even if these ideas of national history are open to different possibilities and interpretations, the notion of combating the Hindutva right through arguments from history is flawed.

In a recent article, Rohan D’Souza, an associate professor at the Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies in Kyoto University argues for the conditions that allow a rational and scholarly approach to history. In his conclusion, he noted, “The ‘idea’ of India, at heart, is a project of history and any government that fails to nurture, develop or sustain this historical imagination by encouraging good and rigorous scholarship plays dangerously with its foundations.” As a cursory glimpse at the Indian Constitution has revealed, the “idea” of India that the Constitution of India enshrines, does not draw upon history, and for good reason. Dispassionately studied, the history of the subcontinent is a story with conflicting versions, and in many a case there is no reason to privilege one version over another. Yet, choices have to be made, and even the question of the choices we make is contentious.

It is something I learnt during my own education in a number of schools outside Punjab. As I grew up, my awareness of identity was impossible to escape. I was a Sikh among Indians, and a Jutt among Sikhs. These identities, and many Indian share such identities, were not a matter of choice. The very fact of being born with my name in the subcontinent ensured I could not escape such representations. But my education left me with no knowledge of the history that accompanied this representation.

The only knowledge of my origins that I picked up from school was the mention of Sikhism in the context of the bhakti movement, the revolt of Banda Bahadur against the dying embers of the Mughal Empire and finally a brief reference to the empire of Ranjit Singh. In contrast, I learnt a great deal about the Mughal Empire, the advent of the English and the uprising of 1857.

As I later read through versions of my own history, in my own time and at my inclination, I was struck by the oddity of the choices implied through this teaching of history. I could understand that schools in eastern and central India would emphasise the uprising of 1857 over say, the end of the Sikh empire in 1847, but could the same hold true for history books in Punjab? It turns out that this simplistic understanding of our origins has been reinforced through a national history curriculum for schools that is prescribed by the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), an autonomous organisation that was set up by the Government of India to assist and advise central and state governments on policies relating to school education. This body still makes the choices that I found so odd in my context, or in the context of Punjab.

The very idea of a national curriculum for history that should hold true for all of India ends up subordinating identities based on histories that challenge any such “national” project. Over the years, it has become evident to me that the need to locate India in history, whether by the left or right, is pernicious.

After the first Sikh war of 1845, Shah Mohammed, a Punjabi poet, wrote the Jangnamah—a description of the war. Shah Mohammed’s acerbity towards the British despite their victory would indicate that he was not looking for patronage; he did not seek anything from the empire that was ending either. This makes the book important as testimony.

Shah Mohammed begins by stating:

“Ek roz Wadale de vich baithe; chali aan angrez di baat aayi. Saanu aakhiya here te nur khan ne; jinna naal saddi mulakat aayi. Raazi bahut rehende musalman hindu; siran doan de aafat aai. Shah Mohammada vich Punjab de ji; kadde nahin si teesri jaat aayi.” —One day seated in Wadala (near Amritsar); the talk turned to the British. My friends Hera and Nur Khan asked me, why did this plight strike Hindus and Muslims who lived in harmony? Punjab Shah Mohammed, never had Punjab seen another set of people arrive.

It is a difficult claim for the Hindutva right to swallow. After all, these lines would suggest that well after centuries of Mughal rule, after the advent of the Sikhs, the Hindus and Muslims of Punjab saw common cause as Punjabis.

Shah Mohammed goes on to describe the war:

“Hokum laat kita laskar aapne nu; tussan laaj angrej di rakhni ji; singhan maar ke katak mukai ditte; hindustani te purbi daccani ji; nandan tapuan vich kurlat hoie; kursi chaar hazaar ho sakhni ji.”—The Lords ordered their troops; preserve the honour of the British; The Singhs have killed and finished so many; hindustanis, purbis and deccani; shrieks ring across the island of London; four thousand chairs lie empty.

Implicit in this verse is a claim that troubles not just Hindutva history but also challenges every claim of a national history, be it from the left or the right. Not only did Shah Mohammed speak of a Punjabi identity, he clearly saw it as distinct from a Hindustani, Purbi or Deccani identity. In the light of poets such as Shah Mohammed, if India can be conceived of as a nation through history, it is as easy to conceive of Punjab as a nation through history too. This is true not just of the Punjab, but also of many whose identities are today labeled “regional.”

This is the real problem with a historical foundation of the “idea” of India. In different ways, both the Sangh’s project of history and the secular project of national history, whatever their contours, suffer from the same disease: the need to locate India in history rather than see it as the creation of the unique ongoing experiment of shared values that began in 1947.

The idea of India as a nation will constantly be under siege from the ideas of regional identity that are as strong, and in some cases even stronger than any sense of national identity. However, India as a Republic of shared values would allow pride in regional identities without subverting a national sense of belonging among its citizens.

By all means, let the historians wrestle down the Sangh’s lies in their domains. The real battle being fought in our Republic is not being waged over history, but over values. When we fight for the “idea” of India, we fight for a certain set of values we voluntarily agreed to share in 1947. We must stand firm against deviations from these values whether they come in the name of a Narendra Modi, a Rajiv Gandhi, or in the guise of the Sangh’s Hindutva.

Hartosh Singh Bal is the political editor at The Caravan, and is the author of Waters Close Over Us: A Journey Along the Narmada.