India and Its History

One big conversation in India is about its resurgence, of its getting back to Global top table. However, the very conversation also indicate an admission of a fall, that there is a period of Indian history that is not that glorious. There is no consensus about the history of the fall, though: For some, the ignominy commenced with the Islamic conquest a thousand year ago, for others this started with the Colonial period in the Eighteenth Century. But everyone interested in India and its supposed resurgence must at some point or the other face this question of History: Why did a supposedly great civilisation succumb so easily to invaders from outside?

There are some conventional answers. The most obvious one is the diversity of India, that India is not really one country. However, while this may be the conventional answer, there is little agreement on what this really means. The thesis, originating mainly from British Colonial historians, positioned India as merely a geographical entity, without a clear political or cultural identity of its people. This view basically disregards any previous history of a political union, under kings such as Vikramaditya, Ashoka or Kanishka, or even under the Great Mughal emperors of later years. The argument simply is that there was no India - 'India is as much a country as the Equator', said Churchill - and it is the British who really made India into a nation, a political entity. As one would expect, the Indian Nationalist Historians reject this view, point to the long civilizational history of India, and, by way of explanation of decline, point to temporal political disunity - various Hindu kings withholding support to Prithwiraj Chauhan or the Imperial Musical Chair after the death of Aurangzeb - as the reason why India succumbed to invasions. 

The problem with this latter thesis is that while this may explain particular defeats - Nadir Shah's conquests in India, for example - temporary lack of leadership is hardly explanation enough for the long dominion and fundamental recasting of the society under the British (or earlier Islamic invaders). Some Indian Historians have attempted to explain these by theorising that India is an 'accommodative civilisation', it has absorbed those invaders in its own culture and made them its own. This view, idealistic as it is, has its own problems: It may fit some earlier invaders, nomads who settled in India, but not the more recent ones: The English exploited India through its divisions - by making the religious differences an instrument of state policy and institutionalising caste - and, at least in context, India embracing diversity sounds very much like an act of submission.

However, the bigger problem with this 'diversity-as-the-weakness' argument is what it leads to: The idea of an 'one nation' India. This is more a political than a racial stance (as it was in Germany, for example), but it is still a romantic quest for Indianness, something that had to be constructed disregarding India's very obviously diverse History. As India's post-independence Republican experiment falters, the arguments against diversity - and by extension, against the Indian form of democracy - are back in conversation. 

This very turn points to the other plausible explanation why India, despite its great scientific and cultural achievements, strong and innovative rulers and a clear sense of political identity, might have succumbed to invasions ever so often: Due to its lack of history! Despite its kings and extensive administrative system, India's tradition of recording and writing history is somewhat weak, with some notable exceptions. Great Emperors such as Akbar might have commissioned some histories, but for much of India, myths had to fill the gap. The discovery of even the great kings and events, of Samudragupta, Kanishka, Pala Kings and various other Hindu kingdoms, had to wait the archaeological works of early Colonial officials in the Asiatic Society. For much of the time and most of the people, Indian history consisted of the stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata. Much of Indian historical consciousness was shaped by commentaries by visitors, first from the Arab world and then the Europeans starting with the Portuguese in the sixteenth century, and for many Indians, the epics and their symbology remained true history even to this day.

So, the Indian Prime Minister discussing the achievements of mythical science (for example, a flying chariot that the King of the Gods rode on as a historical thing) and the politics centered around the birthplace of Lord Rama (a mythical character and hero of an Indian epic) are very real factors in Indian politics, even to this day. It is not the absurdity of it that I resent though: They point to a historical amnesia that has been the feature of Indian culture for a very long time. And, this, rather than India's diversity, should be seen as the key reason why India failed to defend itself so many times: People without histories often have nothing to fight for.



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