Age of Empires Version 2.0

History is the window through which we peek into the past, as we strive to…

History is the window through which we peek into the past, as we strive to shed light on the present and without which, we cannot hope to form an opinion on the kind of future we are headed towards.

Construction of a credible historical account most often involves a reliance on fragmentary literary and archaeological evidence coupled with reasonable speculation employed to stitch together a coherent chronological narrative.

It would not be incorrect to say that history is essentially just a consensus about what the past was probably like. Now, any consensus hints at a dispute that has been duly considered and finally rejected in favour of the more convincing or dominant view, suggesting that history is also a kind of disagreement, because rarely do we find incontrovertible proof to declare one and only one account of the past as solely genuine.

There is another, more interesting disagreement concerning history. This disagreement is not with the dominant view per se but about whether the past, as we know it, is truly over and done with or if it is still lurking in the shadows of the present, metamorphosed into a deceptive new outer form, while secretly retaining its core inner attributes.

As a case in point, the oft-criticized Varna (later distorted as caste) system of ancient India continues to find subtle expression, with important differences and significant similarities, in the meritocratic arrangements of contemporary society in India and elsewhere.

Clearly, the past, as long as it continues to hold sway over how power is currently shared by members of a community, is far from dead and informs the little choices we make and the myriad thoughts we think. It is largely in the purview of this disagreement over the ‘pastness of past’ that history becomes the syntax of collective identity.

If history is indeed the syntax of identity, then it is equally valid to say that identity forms the grammar of history. This reciprocity between the two finds resonance in Walter Benjamin’s profound yet simple assertion: “History is written by the victors”, where victors, we may infer, are not just the ones who actually win wars but also those that carry themselves as such. The final military outcome of wars is inconsequential in this context.

In other words, races, tribes, communities or cults that refuse to acknowledge the finality of their defeat hold on to their own definition of the self and retain a sense of continuity from the past to the present while those who count themselves among the vanquished tend to embrace the identity of the victors, completely losing out on their place and participation in either civilization’s evolutionary journey.[1]

Somewhere between the two extremes of cultural self identification and denial, are located the vast majority of people in today’s world, still recuperating from the devastating effects of centuries of religious and imperial conquests.

Academic Treatment of Imperial Conquests of India

The above raw hypothesis regarding reciprocity can be put to test by evaluating the difference in the treatment of Islamic(treated as a monolith for analysis) versus British invasion of India in our academia.

It is well known that the ‘native’ resistance to both these intrusions, separated by many centuries between them, was uniformly heroic and unrelenting, leading to their fall in the end, not exclusively attributable to the resistance alone.

But if we were to judge the magnitude of their respective successes, we would have to quantify it based on the extent to which the rulers were successful in getting their subjects to forsake their indigenous identity and embrace that of the invaders’.

From being a miniscule minority at the beginning of the medieval period, the Muslim population grew nearly a hundredfold to form 12 per cent of the total population of India by the end of the 18th century [2].

We see no such massive changes in religious demographics between the commencement and end of British imperial rule in India.This corresponds directly with how we view genocides under the two regimes.

While history students in India are rightly made to recount the horrors of the Jalianwala Bagh massacre and the Bengal famine, the widespread genocide carried out by various Islamic rulers is deliberately ignored, even though the number of innocent people killed by Muslim invaders runs into scores of millions, relative to which, British atrocities fade to insignificance—in the context of sheer numbers killed.

It would be tempting to explain away this partisanship of our historians as a function of the comparative proximity in time of the British Raj or in the fact that many Muslim rulers stayed over permanently and genetically mingled with the inhabitants.

But the systematic negation[3] of Islamic brutality in medieval India begs a more persuasive elaboration, in the absence of which, it is fair to conclude that this cover-up springs from the political compulsions of pandering to the acquired identity of a large number of people, who see themselves as the progeny of the oppressors.

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Exploitation of natives under Medieval Islamic rule

British Colonial Rule

Lest we are quick to hand over a clean chit to the British imperialists and their metaphorical post colonial progeny, we must remember that the nuts and bolts of colonial domination were materially different from those of Islamic assaults.

One, religion was strategically employed to bring about the subservience of the native but it was not the lone or even the central mode of attack. Secondly, psychological dominance was achieved not so much by thrusting western customs down native throats as it was by undermining their already fractured confidence in the strength of their own ethos. And most importantly, the power imbalance achieved was designed to sufficiently outlast the direct colonial rule that had brought it about.

Predictably, colonial rule also resulted in polarization of indigenous identities,reflected symptomatically in debates between the ‘Orientalists’ and ‘Anglicists’ over education or in the split of Indian National Congress between ‘Moderates’ and ‘Extremists’ in 1907[4]. There are good reasons to believe that this process of polarization is currently underway in much of our politics and culture.

One of the most definitive characters of British imperial rule in India was the stark contrast in the colonial experience of the citizens of the two geo-political entities. For the man on the street in London, colonialism was a peripheral experience, one that was simply another fact of life while for the colonized Indian in Calcutta, it was the central truth around which her life was structured. As Edward Said lucidly explains this asymmetry: [5]

“In one instance, we assume that the better part of history in colonial territories was a function of the imperial intervention; in the other, there is an equally obstinate assumption that colonial undertakings were marginal and perhaps even eccentric to the central activities of the great metropolitan cultures. Thus, the tendency in anthropology, history, and cultural studies in Europe and the United States is to treat the whole of world history as viewable by a kind of Western super—subject, whose historicizing and disciplinary rigour either takes away or, in the post-colonial period, restores history to people and cultures ‘without’ history… These elisions and denials are all reproduced, I believe, in the strident journalistic debates about decolonization, in which imperialism is repeatedly on record saying, in effect, you are what you are because of us; when we left, you reverted to your deplorable state, for certainly there is little to be known about imperialism that might help either you or us in the present.”

Therefore, it is worthwhile to question from a meta-historical perspective, if colonial domination has really come to an end, in practice, if not in principle. Let us now examine in more detail how the repercussions of western supremacy play out along predictable lines under vastly different settings.

Current Repercussions of Western Colonialism

In the late eighties, as Stanford University was undergoing a period of introspective churning, there were demands from students and professors to modify the curriculum so as to include texts by more non-Europeans, women, people of colour, and so on.

Bernard Lewis entered the debate in the capacity of a well regarded scholar and an authority on Islam and took the extremist position that modification of the reading list would be equivalent to the demise of Western culture, leading to a reversion to slavery, polygamy and child marriage. He added that curiosity about other cultures, presumed to be unique to the west, would also come to an end.

Two and a half decades later, the newly elected government in India mulled over plans to revive popular interest in Sanskrit, the language in which most of the ancient Indian literature was originally written.

What followed was a political drama no less absurd than the radical views of the American scholar mentioned above, with many people calling the initiative regressive, ‘Brahminical’ and retrograde, accusing the government of ‘saffronization’, a term used to denote Hindu “extremism.”

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Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a prominent intellectual,questioned the relevance of reviving a “dead language” in a culture that has “lost the art of fine distinctions” and “where public argument is nothing but the flouting of logic”. Ironically, he was doing exactly that in his attempt to argue imaginatively.

There are recognizable parallels in the closet supremacist’s hysterical rejection of alternative texts in an American university with the Macaulayist’s apologetic denial of Sanskrit’s place in modern India.

Both are barely concealed rants that miss the wood for the trees and imagine malice on the part of authorities, where there is none. Both men claim to respect and understand non western cultures, one through scholarship and the other through belonging. Both parrot colonial narratives long after imperial empires have physically withdrawn from the colonies.But one speaks as the conqueror and the other as the vanquished. Therein lies all the difference.

Cultural Decolonization

For any post-colonial society, the process of outgrowing the colonial straitjacket and rediscovering their aboriginal identities is painful and slow. It is also fraught with the very real danger of accidentally reverting to hostile, racist and possibly violent mindsets of the previous centuries.

Yet, it is a necessary step to achieve freedom from the ghosts of the past and immunity from what Rajiv Malhotra calls ‘Atrocity Literature’, which is nothing but pseudo-scholarship by a section of the western academia and motivated reporting by a significant part of the western media on socio-cultural complexities of former colonies[6].

These efforts are well funded by their governments for pre-planned strategic/military interventions that make the virtual annihilation of a whole region, on the pretext of searching for non-existent weapons of mass destruction, seem like benevolent efforts for strengthening democracy. White man’s burden, version 2.0.

Cultural decolonization, although seemingly focussed on divisive issues such as identity, if wisely carried out,can be the basis of a new world order that has cleansed itself of the obsessions of identity politics.

Only then can the truly urgent issues of environmental degradation, global warming, food and water security etc. be addressed sincerely and with the required global consensus. The current dichotomy between local and global is exaggerated mainly due to the skewed power equation between the have and have-not nations.

Consider the deplorable condition of River Ganga in spite of the reverence accorded to it in traditional thought. Why the concern for Ganga is compartmentalized to Hindu religious sentiment, as opposed to a direct feeling of devotion for its incredible contribution to life on the subcontinent, can be attributed to the absence of any sense of historical identity,regardless of the fact that millions ritually worship the river every single day.

Contrary to lazy theorizing about supposedly divergent aspirations of progressive environmentalists and regressive revivalists (as they call anyone who speaks of the need to get reintroduced to one’s history), keeping the Ganga clean is an endeavour that can only meet success if the ordinary dweller on her banks, accepts her for what she really is,the lifeblood of Indian civilization from times immemorial.

In the end, it must be emphasized that the one thing that can derail all sincere attempts at decolonization is the amplification of tribal instincts and xenophobia, dangerous foes that must be pre-emptively and systematically kept at bay.

Mere hatred for neo-imperialist institutions would only reinforce the cycle of victimhood, causing the world to get caught again in the eddies of colonial thought-currents. It would work wonderfully for those enjoying power to maintain the status quo but the rest of us and the planet surely deserve better.

References

[1] Muslim Separatism: Its causes and consequences – Sita Ram Goel

[2] Indian Muslims: Who Are They? – K.S. Lal

[3] Negationism in India: Concealing The Record of Islam – Koenraad Elst

[4] Bande Mataram: Early Political Writings – Aurobindo Ghosh

[5] Culture and Imperialism – Edward Said

[6] Breaking India – Rajiv Malhotra & Aravindan Neelakandan

Ashish Dhar, a Mechanical Engineer and an entrepreneur, lives in New Delhi. He is co-founder of pragyata.com, an e-learning portal dedicated to Indic knowledge systems.