Manan Ahmed Asif | November 20, 2020 | India Today
In pre-colonial Persian works of different genres, India was often referred to as Hindustan, but the word Hindustan almost always existed as a compound phrase, Hindustan Jannat Nishan, that is ‘Hindustan the sign of heaven on earth’. The idea that Hindustan was a special place, not just the greatest country in the world, possibly also the greatest Islamic land in the world, goes back to the time of Amir Khusrau in the 14th century, may be even earlier. This Hindustan Jannat Nishan was celebrated in chronicles, histories, poetic compilations in Persian and in other vernacular languages. These works extolled its climate, its diversity, its produce and its culture. However, this Hindustan, the beloved of pre-colonial histories, has disappeared from modern Indian history writing and has been replaced by the idea of India, and more commonly in the popular imagination, as ‘thousand years of Muslim tyranny and destruction’. How did this come about? In investigating this problematic Manan Ahmed Asif has also written a genealogy of how history has come to be written in modern India. In doing so he reverses the dictum that the oppressed and marginalised pose to hegemonic histories everywhere viz. our past comes in the way of your history. Here the formulation that is more apt is this: it is our history that comes in the way of their past.
They here are the colonial British historians of India, who wrote the first modern histories of India in the 18th and 19th centuries. It is through their formative histories that we have largely come to know our past. But in writing their histories they depended on the very Persian chronicles that they unanimously dismissed with great condescension. Manan’s analysis begins with Alexander Dow, a soldier in the East India Company who published his History of Hindustan translated from the Persian History of Ferishta in 1768. But Dow’s book, and his subsequent works, were far more than translations. Dow also had a thesis on Indian history and on the sources that he used which framed his translations, a thesis shared by his fellow Orientalists such as William James, Alexander Scott, Warren Hastings and others. Muslim rule in India, he claimed, was utterly despotic, which oppressed the original inhabitants of India, the Hindus, who had a glorious past but who entirely lacked a sense of history, and that Muslim histories were mostly useless compilation of facts and conquests. Manan shows how Dow’s ideas were picked up by other influential thinkers in Europe. Dow, who was from Scotland, was a close correspondent of David Hume. Hume introduced Dow’s text to Voltaire and to Immanuel Kant. Voltaire, Kant, Hegel, Schlegel, Herder all of whom gave lectures on the spirit and philosophy of history internalised and propagated these ideas of Indians, that is Hindus as original inhabitants who lacked all sense of history and outsider Muslim invaders who initiated an era of despotism. In his famous tract of 1784 titled ‘Idea for a Universal History‘, Kant asserted that the inhabitants of India did possess a five-thousand-year-old past, but they were, “repeatedly “interrupted” by foreign invaders, and hence were one of the many nations whose past belongs to the terra incognita,” the unknown land of history. Supine Hindus lacking any sense of history, despotic Muslims and both their salvation in British justice, these ‘truths’ became a common-sensical understanding of India. They were also used by these philosophers of history to justify the forcible admission of India, and other colonised spaces, into the march of History.
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