Nationalism in the study of Indian historiography is a useful tool to discover this ancient land.
Outside India, and in India’s secularist circles, “nationalism” counts as a bad thing, a kind of collective self-centeredness, a refusal of solidarity with the rest of the world. In the 19th century, it counted by contrast as a form of generous solidarity with people you didn’t know, simply because they belonged to the same nation. The Great War of 1914-18 saw the highest tide of nationalism. Thus, in my native Belgium, an artificial state without a soul, it was the war that first created a national feeling, focused on war leader King Albert I. In the inter-war years, all manner of associations for trade-unionism, sports or even music affected military mannerisms with parades and uniforms, an atmosphere in which the emerging authoritarian-nationalist movements could flourish. India’s newly founded mass movement RSS (1925) followed this same fashion and has kept it up till today, long after it disappeared abroad.
At the same time, the war was followed by the emergence of a pacifist and internationalist spirit, embodied at the highest level by the creation of the League of Nations. A number of writers expressed this weariness of the nationalist passions that first had led to the war and then been exacerbated by it, such as Goodbye to All That by frontline veteran and famous classicist Robert Graves. After World War Two, when the Axis powers had profiled themselves as fervently nationalist (and in spite of the fact that the Allies and the Resistance movements had done likewise), nationalism definitely went out of fashion. Intellectuals developed a keen eye for the distortive influence that nationalist (even more than other) passions had on history-writing.
Nationalism in the British period
But now Dilip K. Chakrabarti, emeritus professor of Archaeology at Cambridge UK, defends nationalism as a research framework: Nationalism in the Study of Ancient Indian History (Aryan Books International, Delhi). Not the fanatical nationalism of some Hindutva trolls, but the modest and quiet nationalism visible in the colonial-age and Nehru-age Indian historians. Their historiography simply and unsensationally paid proper attention to the scientific and cultural achievements of Hindu civilization and to its already ancient search for unity.
This nationalist tendency marked itself off against the rival tendency of colonialist history. The latter would deny any originality or agency to Indian culture, all inventions and important doctrines borrowed from Greek or other foreign sources. This tendency persists among today’s dominant anti-nationalist or self-described “secularist” school, for political reasons out to belittle India’s achievements. Yet, we get to see that the great British historians (discussed on p.76-156), as distinct from non-historians like TB Macaulay, rarely gave signs of belittling India.
At the other end, we find the traditionalists who were then and still are scornful of the canons of academic history. They derive history from sources like the Puranas and take the epics literally. Ridiculed but persistent, they are impervious to scholarship. There is for any reader of this book, or any other by Chakravarti, no occasion for confusing him with these far-fetched chauvinists.
Chakrabarti surveys the British-age Indian historians at length. (p.157-250). An interesting example was Rajendra Lala Mitra. (p.157-173) We may quote him here for disturbing the common Hindu chauvinist allegation that the alleged Indian lack of historical sense is but a colonial concoction meant to belittle India. No, it is a fact based in common observation, also by Indians themselves. Mitra is quoted as lamenting his own civilization’s lack of historical sense:
“India never produced a Xenophon or a Thucydides, and her heroes and their mighty exploits, her greatness and her early civilization, where they live, live but in song (…) there are few ancient books which bear authentic dates”. (p.159)
Not that the Indians lacked a calendar system – they had too many of them:
“It was held to be a distinguishing mark for a great sovereign to establish an era (…) But unfortunately Indian writers never brought their systems of chronology to bear upon history; and in the absence of chronology their history degenerated into the most inconsistent fables and legends. (..) Almost every date is doubtful.” (p. 167)
Same remark by the greatest historian of the 20th century, RC Majumdar, whose voluminous work is discussed in detail. (p.226-8 and p.273-287) He is quoted as diagnosing the “almost all-encompassing absence of historical texts from the earliest times to the Muhammadan conquest” and the “absence of a definite chronology”. (p.380) Like Mitra and Majumdar, Chakrabarti is clearly not a nationalist in the sense of a blind glorifier of his country. But acknowledgement of India’s weak points is all the easier as the said flaw is compensated by the many achievements of Indian civilization. And moreover, the admitted weakness has a silver lining: India’s record of its early history is a bit garbled, but on the other hand, it reaches deeper in time (with very pre-Vedic histories of Manu and his successors) than comparable records in the other great civilizations.
Another pioneer was Ramesh Chandra Dutta, who “like many of the period [= late 19th], was an avid supporter of the Aryan theory”. (p.182) He is quoted as considering the results of the “industry, perseverance and genius” of early Indo-Europeanists like “Bopp, Grimm, and Humboldt” as “one of the noblest and most brilliant of the century”: the Indo-European language family. (p.183)
Today, many nationalists including Chakrabarti himself reject the notion of Indo-European, but he concedes that back then, far from being resented by the Indians of the day as an imperialist concoction, they generally welcomed it, because:
“The Aryan hypothesis implied that the ruling Anglo-Saxons and the ruling Indians (at least the higher castes among the North-Indians) belonged to the same stock and could claim a cousinship, however removed, with their rulers.” (p.183)
But he himself is not convinced:
“To the present author, the Aryans are a historical non-issue because this is nothing more than a historical concoction to imagine a group of all-conquering dominating people on the model of the Europeans in the 16th-20th centuries.” (p.9)
Like a very large number of Hindus, Chakravarti assumes, following the AIT school, that “comparative philology” necessarily implies the AIT; and is, therefore, to be shunned. He rejects not only the Aryan Invasion/Immigration Theory but the Out-of-India Theory as well:
“The so-called ‘out-of-India’ theory postulated for the Aryan origin, which is current among a section of Indian scholars, should not mean anything historically tangible or verifiable because the whole Aryan issue is irrelevant to the rational understanding of ancient India.” (p.9-10)
Well, some of the historians he discusses contradict this view. Mountstuart Elphinstone was the Governor of Mumbai Presidency before he became a historian, which makes him formally an out-and-out colonialist. Yet, he was in two minds about the Aryan invasion thesis. In his day (1841), the Aryan Invasion Theory was still young (August van Schlegel posited a Caucasus homeland in 1834) and disputed. He simply notes the dilemma whether the high castes had been invaders or “merely a portion of one of the native states (a religious sect, for instance) which had outstripped their fellow citizens in knowledge”. (p.115)
Then he proceeds to give a cautious answer. Even if conquest was at the origin of the power equation in a caste society, that doesn’t make it a foreign conquest:
“It is opposed to their foreign origin that neither in the code [of Manu], nor, I believe, in the Vedas, nor in any book that is certainly older than the code, is there any allusion to a prior residence”. (p.115)
To be sure, there is no such recorded memory among the other Indo-European branches either, e.g. the Germanic Edda of ca. 1200 CE knows nothing of an immigration whereas the Out-of-India Theory (and even the still-common peri-Caucasus homeland theory) posits their immigration into Northern Europe ca. 2500 BCE, obviously because the long time-lapse made this forgetfulness a natural outcome. The Aryan Invasion Theory, by contrast, posits an immigration ca. 1500 BCE and immediately thereafter the composition of the Rg-Veda, including (at least in the AIT school’s reading) descriptions of battles between invaders and natives. So unlike in the Edda, especially in the Vedas we ought to find references to very recent foreign origins, given the importance that ancient peoples in general and Indians in particular attached to origins.
Where I completely agree with Elphinstone but Chakrabarti does only partly, is this:
“The common origin of the Sanscrit language with those of the west leaves no doubt that there was once a connection between the nations by whom they are used; but it proves nothing regarding the place where such a connection subsisted, nor about the time, (…) To say that it spread from a central point is a gratuitous assumption (…) Where, also, could the central point be, from which a language could spread over India, Greece and Italy, and yet leave Chaldaea, Syria and Arabia untouched? The question, therefore, is still open. There is no reason whatever for thinking that the Hindus ever inhabited any country but their present.” (p.115-6)
Indeed, we agree that the Hindus came from India. As for the Europeans, we say that the linguistically decisive part of their ancestry came from India, whereas most Indians including Chakrabarti say it didn’t; though essentially they don’t give a damn about these non-Indians, as their horizon stops at the Khyber Pass. Here, persuasion will have to come from Chakrabarti’s own field: archaeology. So far it has shown a complete absence of indications of Aryans moving into India (as opposed to Europe, where both archaeological and genetic evidence of the Aryan invasion is plentiful), but much less work has been done to identify Indian emigrant traces in the Central-Asian record. These will give more body to a scenario of Aryan expansion via a secondary homeland on the steppes, then into Europe.
One great merit of this book is the insider’s account of the Leftist takeover of the education establishment, mainly during Indira Gandhi’s 1972-77 tenure, with PN Haksar as her political secretary, Saiyid Nurul Hasan as her Education Minister, and card-carrying Communist Prof. RS Sharma as the first chairman of the Indian Council of Historical Research, newly founded in 1972. (p.3-20, p.293-311, passim) Sharma’s textbook Ancient India, the ICHR’s first, with the protest against it by archaeologist Swarajya Prasad Gupta, was the first salvo in the ‘textbook controversy’ that has never really died down ever since.
As for his own experience:
“In several Indian universities that I can think of – Delhi University, for instance — students were positively discouraged to read those ‘nationalist’ writings” (p.4), i.e. sober India-minded historians like RC Majumdar.
Chakrabarti himself served at Delhi University for a while and was the target of Communist slander there. Editing A History of Ancient India in 2013, he found that major publishers refused, slated contributors withdrew etc.: “cancel culture”.
After SP Gupta, a very small handful of minor publications dealt with this Communist coup against objective historiography. Then “the first major criticism of the ‘left-liberal’ or ‘progressive’ historians was made by Arun Shourie with special reference to the state of the ICHR in their control.” (p.11, referring to Shourie’s 1998 book Eminent Historians. Their Technology, Their Line, Their Fraud) The title Eminent Historians refers to how they call each other to pull rank against the non-conformist historians mostly excluded from an academic career; it is also a pun on a colonial-age book title, Eminent Victorians. The book documented the eminent historians’ misuse of the lavish subsidies they received and focused on their systematic history manipulation.
Though “these earlier scholars never transcended the limits of objective historical research in their championing of some nationalist premises” and “in no case did they try to glorify ancient India at the expense of objectivity”, yet “the communists launched a propaganda war against the earlier scholars by styling themselves ‘progressives’ as opposed to the ‘revivalist’ and ‘regressive’ Indian scholars of the earlier generations. They did not find the necessity of citing facts to support their contention”. (p.381) The Left purposely conflates Bhāratīya Vidyā Bhavan (that published RC Majumdar’s magnum opus) historians with the eccentric Bhāratīya Itihās Saṇkalan Yojanā history-rewriters. They also portrayed themselves, though power-wielders, as oppressed.
Thus, DN Jha’s Myth of the Holy Cow (Verso, 2002) tried to shock the Hindus, who protested. So Jha roped in worldwide sympathy by presenting himself as a victim of Hindu fanaticism. Yet the case of historian Rajendra Lala Mitra’s 1881 book Indo-Aryans, with the same message, had not led to any persecution. (p.169) The Hindu public had had no problem with the message that Hindu norms had been different 3000 years ago compared to today; only with the Hindu-bashing that Jha added to it.
Did the scene change under Narendra Modi, the supposed Hindu fanatic? Not quite: under BJP rule, no counter-strategy was developed, and the much-discussed problem of “Right-wing history rewriting” remains a figment of the feverish Leftist imagination:
“The communists had a free run so far, their opponents being no match in the psychological warfare launched by the communists. These opponents have had the control of the ICHR uninterruptedly since 2014 but they have basically been unable to neutralize the communist lobby in Indian historical studies. They are not motivated enough and focused enough. They regrettably are not even professional enough to realize where the communists have to be hurt to their disadvantage. They remain content by merely uttering platitudes about the Aryans or the Sarasvati. In the latter entreprise they regrettably have been joined by a large number of people who have never taken a day’s course in historical studies on a professional level.” (p.382)
To sum up: this book is a very good overview of the main trends in Indian historiography. It introduces the main conflicts within the field, marking these for future in-depth studies. The Left would have liked us to ignore their motivated power-grab, but after this book, this will become impossible.
Dilip K. Chakrabarti: Nationalism in the Study of Ancient Indian History, Aryan Books International, Delhi 2020, 398 pp., ISBN 978-81-7305-648-2, Rs 995.