IOS Symposium on “Distortions in the Writing of Indian History”

October 13, 2018 at Institute Building, 162, Jogabai, Jamia Nagar, New Delhi

Distortion in the writing of Indian history is not a new phenomenon. This is as old as the writing of history itself. But the slanted writing of Indian history, particularly the period of Muslim rule, also known as the medieval period, began during the British colonial regime. They also sowed the seeds of communal disharmony between Hindus and Muslims. The issue has been engaging the attention of the Institute of Objective Studies (IOS), among other sections, and scholars for some time now.

Following the resolution adopted at the valedictory session of the national seminar on “Towards Equality, Justice and Fraternity in Contemporary India: Creating a Better Tomorrow Through History” organised by the IOS at Chennai in December last year, the need for setting up a centre for understanding history in an objective manner with the application of an honest mind and impeccable method, was felt.

The resolution was followed by the formation of the IOS Centre for Historical Studies to focus on historical and cultural researches and to develop a full-fledged project on history. As part of the project the first symposium on “Distortions in the Writing of Indian History” was organised by the IOS at its conference room on October 13, 2018.

Presided over by the IOS Secretary General, Prof. ZM Khan, the symposium began with recitation of a Quranic verse by Hafiz Athar Husain Nadwi. Prof. Syed Jamaluddin, former professor of history, Jamia Millia Islamia and director, Zakir Husain Institute of Islamic Studies, who was the convener of the symposium, conducted the proceedings. Initiating the discussion, he said that objectivity could not be achieved in the study of history because prejudices could not be avoided.

Citing Mulla Abdul Qadir Badayuni, who was described by him as a subjective historian, he said that Abul Fazal on the other hand was objective in his description of Akbar’s times. In the study of history, raising of questions in the pursuit of knowledge had catapulted it to the status of a discipline akin to science. He held that some of the observations of Badayuni proved wrong later on enquiry.

Addressing the symposium as one of the main speakers, Prof. RP Bahuguna, professor of history and culture at Jamia Millia Islamia, observed that the term distortion in history writing was difficult to define as it had relative dimensions. This was so because there was no last word in history. Sometimes, what was perceived was more powerful than the objective truth. In this respect, truth was fabricated. It must be clear that distortion lay in one’s perspective, he said.

Instead of calling it distortion of history, he preferred to understand it as falsification of history. Like other social sciences, attitude to history had also changed over a period of four decades. Outdated interpretations of history had been replaced by a new attitude to look at history. The problem of how people looked at history would continue. Then the question also arose as to how to convince the children.

Referring to the treatment of the subject in the West, he said in both France and Britain, there was a rigorous process of studying history, which had been used by the powers that be as a tool to influence minds of children. He noted that in India, Prof. Bipan Chandra, Prof. Romila Thapar, Prof. Irfan Habib, Prof. Satish Chandra, etc. presented the secular interpretation of history which could not be called distortion at all. Still, there were some scholars, rather progressive ones who did not subscribe to the theory propounded by “secular historians”, as in their view, the discourse of these historians was lopsided.

Then there was another group of historians represented by the likes of Meenakshi Jain, who wrote history from a rightist perspective, but stood nowhere near scholars like Prof. Irfan Habib or Prof. Romila Thapar, yet were given the assignment by the present government to write history textbooks. He said that the period between 1000 and 1700 A.D. was subject to falsification was abused by fundamentalists. However, this phenomenon was not confined to India alone. Both Hitler in Germany and Mussolini in Italy twisted history to glorify themselves. Similarly, age of the British Empire was also glorified to overshadow the dark aspects of the period. He said that the revivalist perspective of history defied logic. For example, Britain’s claim as the mother of democracy was being disputed by rightwing historians who sought to establish that India already had a democratic set up much before Britain. In Pakistan, a historian not towing the state line could be oppressed for writing history not approved by the government.

Prof. Bahuguna termed the calling of the medieval period of Indian history as Muslim period a misnomer. It was the creation of British colonial rule. According to him, both Hindus and Muslims had communal historians. Elaborating on his point, he said that power at the local level in Rajasthan and other regions was controlled by non-Muslims. Periods of war were followed by periods of stability and peace. Instances of Rajputs giving their daughters to Mughals in marriage were many.

Research showed that Rajputs married their daughters to the Mughals out of their own volition. No force was applied by the mughals to take their daughters, nor did the initiative come from their side to marry Rajput girls. He said that the Rajputs treated Mughals as Bade Thakur (the elder Thakur), and had no hesitation in giving their daughters. He maintained that in the South, Vijayanagar, a Hindu Kingdom, flourished during the medieval period. There were several other Hindu empires in the South where Islamic culture flourished with Persian being the court language.

Debunking the popular myth about the Maratha warlord Shivaji, Prof. Bahuguna said that he never questioned the Mughal rule from beginning till end. He only wanted a mansab (feudal title) for himself from Aurangzeb, who treated him as a mountain rogue. But, in Maharashtra, he was worshipped as an unbending and unyielding hero.

Tracing the history of the usage of the word Hindu, he explained that before the advent of Muslims in India, no Indian was called Hindu; no such word was found in Sanskrit texts before the 12th century. Al-Beruni, however, used the term to denote Indians (people of the Indus), Hindus, largely as a geographical term. Arabs were the first to use the term due to the concentration of population in the areas contiguous to the river Indus. Hindu was used for the upper castes who commanded respect among other castes. Of late, religious identities had become more manifest, which was evident from the fact that if somebody were asked to disclose his religious identity fifty years ago, he would have refused to identify him himself as Hindu or a Muslim.

He said that those engaged in the cultivation of crops, especially tribals in greater Punjab embraced Islam under the influence of dargahs. Influenced by Baba Farid, a large number of Jats in Punjab converted to Islam. He said that in the 19th century under the British rule, Indians came to be known as Hindu or Muslim. In Bengal, where Raja Mansingh was the governor, the entire peasantry was Islamised. Prof. Bahuguna held that the Mughals were generous in giving grants to the places of religious significance. Vrindavan, which came into prominence during the Lodhi period, received grants from the Mughals, he added.

Prof. Rizwan Qaiser, professor of history and culture, Jamia Millia Islamia, argued that history became precious when everyone sought to see future in it. But objectivity became a casualty in the writing of history when Prof. RS Sharma, Prof. Satish Chandra, etc., were attacked for their views. He explained that history was not static, but dynamic. Change came about by way of research. Reinterpretation of facts changed the view held earlier by historians on the Harappan civilisation.

Emerging facts replaced previous assumptions. Prof. Bipan Chandra, Prof. Romila Thapar and Prof. Harbans Mukhia, demolished certain myths advanced by colonial historians in a book co-authored by them. Things changed after 1930 when Indians started looking at their own sources of history. Commenting on the approach of the present dispensation to knowledge, he said that it was “anti-knowledge”. On the study of communalism, he said that Prof. Bipan Chandra’s writing on the subject was illuminating. History was a controversial discipline as each historian grappled with it in his or her own way. Distortion in the writing of history took place most during the colonial rule.

He hailed Dr. Beni Prasad’s book, The Hindu-Muslim Question, as one of the finest works on the relations between the two major Indian communities. He said that history too had faced a communal divide as it was being attached to religion. While the ancient period was labeled as Hindu, modern history was associated with British colonial rule. However, the medieval period was no body’s child, which was clear from the fact that several Indian universities, including those in Odisha, did not have medieval history as a subject.

He remarked that a chain of Saraswati Shishu Mandir schools run by the RSS were busy polluting tender minds. Unfortunately, our secular historians wrote much less than what was expected of them. Sir Syed who was maligned by communalists, was against cow slaughter. A few months before his death, he had issued an appeal to Muslims to desist from slaughtering cows.

Prof. Qaiser said that a majority of Muslims was against Partition. Those days nationalist Muslims were ridiculed as Congressite Muslims. In 1940, nearly one lakh Muslims gathered in Bihar to adopt a resolution against the concept of Pakistan. He concluded by saying that only 15 percent Muslims were responsible for the creation of Pakistan.

He regretted that new codes of conduct were being introduced in universities, which discouraged teachers from raising questions. It would, in the long run, destroy liberal and free environment of university campuses, he added.

In his presidential observations, Prof. ZM Khan, said that the IOS was committed to the cause of the study of history from an objective perspective. The Institute was working on initiating programmes at much higher and wider scale in future where efforts and cooperation of all concerned quarters would be solicited.

He said that the symposium was the first step towards building an IOS Centre for Historical Studies. He held that new perceptions were being created to use history as a tool for political purposes. History was also a tool to shape perceptions which acted in a powerful manner in the process of mobilisation of opinion, and finally votes. He cautioned the historians, political scientists and the scholars of other disciplines against the looming danger to knowledge as such. Thus there was a need to contribute to knowledge and history in a positive manner. He informed that the first project undertaken by the Centre would be “Towards Composite Culture”.

At the end of the seminar, Prof. Syed Jamlauddin extended a vote of thanks to the speakers as well as the audience. The symposium was attended by scholars, researchers from Jamia Millia Islamia and other universities, prominent citizens and social activists. The topic evinced keen interest as the hall was packed to capacity.


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