Soap Opera View of History (Understanding India 1)

1 06 2007

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One of the greatest impediments to peace in our region is the skewed understanding of history that we generally carry in our heads. Popular understanding seems preponderantly skewed in favour of understanding India’s history in terms of individual rulers and leaders or in categories of Hindu and Muslim. We perceive our past in terms of either great deeds done by equally great men (and notice that these are always men, usually great, but also often its opposite, evil) or in terms of the Hindus and the Muslims playing out a historical soap opera of epic proportions.

Categories like class, caste and geography are almost always without any place in our attempts to understand or explain our history. Academic historians have managed to bring in the concept of class into the matrix used to understand our past and in recent years, the importance of caste too has been highlighted by some. Except for historians of ancient India and some historians of the medieval times, the impact of geography, or technology, is almost never taken into consideration, even by the best of historians.

Despite the successes of the historians inside the academy, popular perception in India as well as Pakistan remains largely confined to either a ‘great individual’-driven perception of history or one that views the past of the entire Subcontinent as Hindu v/s Muslim soap opera. Therefore, Gandhi, Nehru and Jinnah are given epithets of great, cunning, wily, arrogant, devious, visionary, etc., and these characteristics are said to explain all that happened in India in the 1940s. Similarly, the early Mughal India is explained due to the ‘liberality’ of Akbar, while Aurangzeb’s ‘fundamentalist’ or ‘puritan’ spirit is used to understand his period.

While individual traits do impact historical events and processes, it must never be forgotten that these work inside the particular social, economic, political, technological and geographical contexts of the times. These contexts provide enabling conditions for individuals to act as well as set limits to what they can do.

One can think in terms of a game of cricket. The white line on the boundary, the pitch and the ground conditions set the geographical context. The rules of the game are similar to the economic, social and political contexts while the equipment provides the technological context. It is within these bounds that individual players do their thing. These contexts provide individuals with enabling conditions that allow them to show their capabilities, or not. These contexts, as will be evident, also set definite limits to what an individual can do. While the qualities of individual players, their temperament, their skills all play important roles, these can be actualised only when the context is provided. Without the cricket field, pitch, bat, ball and rules, there is little to differentiate me from Sachin Tendulkar, except perhaps for his demigod and semi-tycoon status! (Now that is a comforting thought).

To return to our understanding of history, the other significant roadblock to a proper understanding of our history has been the preponderance of the religious category to understand and explain our past. Though it is true that religious identity and religion-inspired passion are often the driving factors, it is impossible to try to explain everything within the bounds of the Muslims and the Hindus.

Let us take a few examples. For both the Hindus and the Muslims who view our past as a soap opera of communal antagonisms, Mahmud of Ghazni’s attack on the temple at Somnath on the Gujarat coast is a watershed event. The ‘Hindus’ see it as a calamitous event, while the ‘Muslims’ view it as an emblem of their historical power over the polytheists. But as historian Romila Thapar conclusively shows in her book titled Somnatha, there was already a strong and welcome Arab Muslim presence in the region of Somnath when Ghazni attacked. In fact, historical records show that the temple land had been given to these Arab Muslims to build their establishment, which included a mosque!

It would be wrong to interpret this as a function of the ‘liberality’ of the Somnath officials and priests. Rather, it was an attempt on their part to strengthen trade with the Arabs. Mahmud’s invasion too was not motivated by religious concerns, but more with looting the riches accumulated at Somnath through centuries of trade, which was not available to him in Afghanistan. And what is even more interesting is that Mahmud used this looted wealth to build an army to challenge the temporal power of the Khalifa (Caliph) in Baghdad. It is impossible to understand the events around Somnath without taking into consideration the geographical conditions of Afghanistan, which sustained a particular social formation that retarded the generation of surplus but enabled a particular social structure. Similarly, it is impossible to understand the wealth of Somnath without taking into consideration, among others, the factors of class, caste, geographical location, agricultural conditions (which themselves are heavily dependent on geographical factors).

Medieval history is riddled with such instances. Religion, or his perceived ‘liberality’, played as little a role in Akbar’s successes in consolidating the Mughal Empire as Aurangzeb’s ‘fundamentalism’ or ‘purity’.

It is not only those who wish to show that the Hindus and the Muslims can never be together, who are trapped inside these categories. Often those who try to posit a history of tolerance and reconciliation too fall into this trap. The formation of the Muslim League was not merely a ‘Muslim’ reaction to the ‘Hindu’-dominated Congress. Unless one also looks at the class character, regional profile and caste composition of both the Congress as well as the Muslim League, it will be impossible to understand or explain them. The Hindu zamindars (landlords) were possibly motivated more by their zamindar class status than their religious passions just like Muslim ryots were arguably motivated by their peasant status, while religion often provided the vehicle of that expression.

One of the things that illustrates the inability of religion to explain our history is the Unionist Party in pre-partition Punjab. The Unionist Party remained the largest political force in Punjab through the period of the rise of the Muslim League. In a context where franchise was severely restricted to the big property owners, the Unionist Party had a stranglehold on the legislature of undivided Punjab. Despite being dominated by those who were followers of the religion Islam, the Unionists had the full support of the Sikh and Hindu landed classes, keeping both the Congress and the Muslim League out of power in this important province. Moreover, it regularly had alliances with Congress and the Akali Dal (including as late as 1946) in opposition to the Muslim League, despite Sikandar Hayat Khan’s support for the Lahore ‘Pakistan resolution’. How can religion ever claim to explain the strange history of undivided Punjab that elected the Unionist Party to power in 1946, a party that contested and won against the Muslim League, but a year later witnessed the only instance of ethnic cleansing in our modern history? Unless we incorporate the categories of class, caste and geography, among others, it is impossible to understand our past in its fullness.

I will use this column in the coming few weeks to highlight how class, caste and geography help us appreciate the nuances of our shared past and reduce the polarity of religious categories with gentler shades of grey.

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This article was also published in my weekly column in The Post, on 30 May, 2007.

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2 responses

1 06 2007
Vinayak

Finally, a post that I can comment on.
I few month back I had gone to a friends place, her family was originally from Multan and her father runs a small profitable business in Delhi. I do not know how but in my five-minute conversation with her father, he started taking about Ambedkar and how his evil schemed constitution that backs his own ‘tribe’ is screwing the country. I didn’t and I could’t get back, it would have been a long conversation and a social disaster for me.
People can kill you with silver tipped stake right through the heart if they hear you say, “A road named Aurangzeb doesn’t bother me.”
Sometime back, I wrote about Somenath and the stories about Manat at my blog. I didn’t write much but just quoted two different sources, M.J. Akbar and Tariq Ali. To me there wasn’t much disparity in what I was trying to convey, but a friend of mine asked me why had a used two different sources saying seemingly different things. I told him, I was only interested in the different stories that exist on the subject, but my friend couldn’t understand.
The fact that these stories exist and are passed on and that to people they still seem relevant, shows the grip of soap operatic view on historical events.
If too many believe that whole world is a Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jew-… soap opera that it ends up being a Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jew-…-Parsi soap opera.

3 06 2007
ayesha

Couldn’t agree more with the thesis of your article.

Indeed.

[ps. i finally read one without you asking me :P]

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