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GN Devy, Tony Joseph and Ravi Korisettar’s The Indians offers a nuanced exploration of the complexities of the past

At one place in The Discovery of India (1946), Jawaharlal Nehru writes of his country: “She was like some ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously”. In recent years, especially after the Narendra Modi government assumed office in 2014, a tendency has gained ground to deride India’s first Prime Minister as a member of the country’s Westernised elite whose views were shaped largely by his privileged background and his education. But this criticism is much more than a takedown of one person. It has to do with implementing a worldview drastically at odds with that of Nehru. As the historian Judith Brown notes in her 2003 biography, Nehru A Political Life, “At the heart of Nehru’s vision of India was the conviction that it was a composite nation, born of a civilisation which over centuries had drawn from and assimilated the many religious and cultural traditions present on the Subcontinent”. 

Despite its avowed intention to decolonise, the recent project to rewrite history and revise textbooks draws from a colonial view of the past that could not appreciate — and struggled to come to terms with — the complexities of the palimpsest that is India. Like its colonial forebear, the current project, too, is heavily dependent on the use of force.

That’s why the scholarly significance of GN Devy, Tony Joseph and Ravi Korisettar edited volume, The Indians; Histories of a Civilization, is intertwined with its political message — one that begins with its subtitle. Devy puts that aptly in the introduction: “The many-ended openness of history as a field of inquiry allows majoritarian politics and autocratic regimes to replace the narrative of history by irrational and untenable claims… In order to bolster up the self-esteem of the dominant sections of society, such regimes concoct illusions of a glorious past era as ‘the essential’ of the people they intend to control and lead, no matter how much farther from truth such claims drives narratives of the past cautiously constructed by professional scientists, archaeologists and historians, and no matter how they marginalise real achievements of the past. Present-day India is a living example of this pattern of re-imagining history”.

 If there is one central message of this volume it’s this: The “’idea of India’ is founded in its immense diversity” – people, cultures, ecosystems, geographies, traditions, architectures, religions, languages, scripts, histories, and even epochs. 

Reading the essays in this volume will leave one with an understanding of a land that was created of varied geo-morphic processes, a subcontinent with regions subject to the myriad influences – at times strains — of migrations and a civilisation where the traffic in ideas was rarely one way. As historian Mayank Kumar writes in the profile of the country’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, “numerous Sufis settled in different parts… and it was natural for them to speak in the local language borrowing the sensibilities of local literary traditions… Though a later development, lest we forget the contribution of Urdu; adab of Urdu was celebrated in Bollywood till very recently”.

This is a view of a civilisation very different from the idea of a timeless greatness that informs the current re-imagining of history. As Devy writes, “the word civilization is not used to refer to the people of the past, or alternately, the present of a great people but, astonishingly, for the breath catching amazement experienced by a generation of relatively recent observers when they came across not too different people in the past – people who set up large cities, developed arts, architecture, amenities, trade, economy and beyond”. The essays in this volume nuance the editor’s description and we are left with an idea of civilisation that broadly conforms with Nehru – or Tagore’s – view of a syncretic culture. But they also alert us to the blind spots of ideas formed during the process of opposition to colonial rule. The present bears the footprints of the various contestations of the past and carries with it fault lines, fissures and exploitative mechanisms that have histories  — the erasures too have a history. In his essay on the early history of Kerala, for instance, Rajan Gurukkal writes about the aggression, coercion and the enslavement of farmers that accompanied the Brahmin occupation of Kerala. “Enslavement of Pulayas over generations erased their past and that accounts for the absence of the counter narrative to the Brahmanical legend.

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Post-independence historiography, in all its diversity, has been a constant endeavour to not just enrich and nuance the Nehruvian – or the Gandhian or the Ambedkarite – vision but also lay out and unspool the complexities that eluded the country’s forefathers. Cross pollination of ideas and traditions, as Bhukya Bhangya writes in his essay on Telangana in this volume, did not erode regional specificities.

The many-splendoured relation between the past and the present is often subject to the innocence as well as the heat of the political moment. It’s the historian’s task to caution against simplistic appropriations. For instance, in her essay on Buddhism in this volume, Naina Dayal contests the view of the Buddha as a social revolutionary. She does so while also underlining the Buddha’s significance – in the past and today . “His supporters included Brahmins, rulers, merchants, influential courtesans and those regarded as ‘low’ in the socio-economic category hierarchy, even women… In a society where sacred knowledge continues to be inaccessible to many, the Buddha’s path opened the possibility of salvation to all. Not everyone was considered worthy of attaining the ultimate goal of nirvana, but even the lowest of the low could aspire to improve their chances of being born into a better existence by following the Buddha’s teachings”. Dayal concludes: “While at least some of the Buddha’s teachings emerged from the context in which he lived, he also asked and attempted to answer questions that continue to be relevant today”.

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Her interpretation is not new. But today, the historian does not just have to refine understandings of the past and explore new areas but also reiterate what has been said in the past. And do so in ways that draw away impressionable minds from the dubious information from myriad sources, including the “Whatsapp” university. The Indians, Histories of a Civilization is a worthy endeavour in this direction.

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