this post will take you a few classes back. In this post, Shivam, succinctly summarises Romila Thapar’s “Interpretations of Indian History: Colonial, Nationalist, Post-colonial”.
It is important to remember the critical role that historiography plays in our analysis of what we read. Time and again, through this course, we will have to fall back on what we have learned in Historiography in order to get the context of what the writers are saying and why they are saying so.
Interpretations of Indian History: Colonial, Nationalist, Post-colonial
This article basically discusses the different schools of historiography which are prevalent in the history writing of Modern India. There is nothing very afresh in the article except for the analysis and critique of the subaltern school of historiography which in my view is important.
The modern historiography of India, was enunciated by the British in the late 18th and 19th centuries. The historiography was done with the presupposition that the Indian culture was a-historical and hence unique. This resulted in the process ‘discovering of the Indian past’ by the colonial historians.
The modern historiography of India can be divided into three broad schools,
- Firstly, the colonial interpretation.
- Secondly, the Nationalist interpretation[S1] .
- Thirdly, the post-colonial interpretation.
The Colonial Interpretation
- The colonial historiography of India was based on the pre-conceptions and debates about the orient in the then European society. This resulted in the creation of the ‘stereotype’ of the Indian society which was the ‘other’ to the European society.
- The second point to be noted is that, as the colonial belief went, that, ‘knowledge is power’, the history of India was being shaped in a way, so as to help in legitimising the European control over the sub-continent.
- The two sub-schools under this system are:
Orientalist School of Historiography: This school tried to link the history of India to the history of Europe. This was done, by the study of languages(as the European and the Indian languages both belong to the strata of Indo-European languages with the same origin). They also tried to link the biblical texts of India like the Dharmashastras to those present in Europe, again indicating similar origin of both these civilisations.
This school also studied the social structures like the caste system in India. This was important not only from the point of intellectual curiosity but it was of administrative importance as well, as this knowledge was helpful in furthering colonial rule in India.
This school to a large extent, considered India as an exotic civilisation bereft of all material considerations and a civilisation which focussed on aspects like spiritualism and other similar meta-physical concepts. This can be interpreted as ‘in part a reflection of an escape from 19th century European industrialisation and the changes which this industrialisation brought, which were somehow difficult to comprehend.’
One important thing to be noted about this school is that it was the first to apply the Aryan label to the Indian society[S2] , which again pointed to a unified origin of the Indian and European societies. Further, they intermingled caste and race, and thus the upper castes were considered Aryan(as they were advanced) and the lower castes were considered of non-aryan and mixed origins.
In my view this school and its prominent historians like Max Muller were to a large extent responsible in the creation of the ‘stereotype[S3] ’ of the Indian society in the European academic and social discourses. It should also be noted that, the nature of colonial rule in this school was non-interventionist in nature.
Utilitarian School of Historiography: This school also believed in the ‘exocity’ of Indian society, but it used those facts to state that the Indian society lacked rationality and individualism and hence the European civilisation was needed to make the ‘stagnant’ Indian society ‘progressive’. This was a departure from the oriental school’s non-interventionist policies. This school of historiography is responsible for the three staged periodisation of the Indian history into, the Hindu civilisation, the Muslim civilisation and the British period.
This school created the concepts of ‘oriental despotism’ , which again was used to legitimise the colonial conquest of the sub-continent.It should be noted that this change in historical thinking also coincided with a change in the colonial policies. By this time the colonial conquest of India was nearly complete, and the need of the hour was to reconstruct the economic structure of the colony, so as to be a source of raw material and an importer of the finished British goods. Thus, the change from a non-interventionist to an interventionist ruler, required certain kinds of interpretation of the history of India, which was provided by the utilitarian historians.
It should also be noted that the concept of Indian society being the ‘other’ of the European societies, had an important place in this school of historiography. This is clear from the ideas of ‘Asiatic mode of production’ which is an anti-thesis of the ‘European mode of production’. This was used to give legitimacy to the British intervention in the sub-continent as it was necessary to break the stagnancy of the Indian society, so it was the lesser of the two evils, the first being remaining in the same stagnant state for eternity. This contrast between Europe and India became a primary concern, and in many cases resulted in the non-representation of those empirical facts which were not in congruence with the thesis.
The Nationalist Interpretation
This school of historians emerged towards the end of the 19th century. This was used for the anti-colonial movement for independence. In this school, history was used for two purposes, firstly, to establish the identity of Indians and secondly by establishing the superiority of the past over the present.
For the first purpose, the Aryan theory of race and other similar concepts came handy, whereas for the second purpose, the concept of the ‘golden era of the Hindu civilisation’ was created. This was done because the remoteness in history of the ‘golden age’ was directly proportional to its utility in imaginative reconstructions and inversely proportional to factual scrutiny.
The basic thing to be noted is that, the colonial nationalists to a large extent used the same methods of historiography as the imperialists but they interpreted these ‘facts’ differently so as to suit their socio-political needs. Though they did reject some of the imperial concepts like ‘oriental despotism’ etcetera but to a large extent they agreed on the historical facts with the imperialists.
This school was also responsible for the rise of religious nationalism based on the classification of the Hindu and Muslim civilisations. It has been argued that this was the period where the concept of separate countries for hindu’s and muslims was conceptualised.
These interpretations are in the view of Ms. Thapar, distortions of Indian history. She states, “they are ideologically limited and intellectually even somewhat illiterate, because history becomes a kind of catechism in which the questions are known, the answers are known and there is adherence to just those questions and answers. No attempt is made to explore intellectually beyond this catechism.”
The Post Colonial Interpretation
- She does not discuss the Post-Independence Nationalist historians, all she says is that it is based on a communal interpretation, which has received a lot of political support.
- The two major schools in this period are,
Marxist School of Historiography
She clearly states that Indian Marxist historians do not follow the theories of Marx and Engels regarding Asian history. All they do is to follow the Marxist analysis, the dialectical method and historical materialism which are all part of the Marxist philosophy. The basic point to be noted here is that the theories of Marx and Engels were based on their studies of the European society and economy[S4] . So, the applicability of these theories to the Indian historiography was not adequate. This is shown by the refutation of Marxist concepts like Asiatic mode of production; application of the five stages of European history etcetera.
The focus of Marxist historiography is on social and economic history and it has challenged the prevailing periodisation of Indian history as enunciated by Mills. The Marxists have also addressed the following important issues; the difference between pre-modern and modern societies; the differences between pre-capitalist and modern societies; changes in the caste system and the transition from clan to caste; interpretation of religion as social ideology etcetera.
Subaltern School of Historiography
This school believes that all other schools of history were elitist in nature as they were focussed on either the colonial state, the indigenous elites, the bourgeois nationalists or the middle class. So, they highlight the need to study the ‘participation of the subaltern groups’.
This school prefers local sources both private and popular in nature upon archives and official papers. They also use ‘oral tradition’ as legitimate historical source material. The following extract is useful in understanding this school, “they encourage the investigation of minutiae of what goes into the making of an event, of the author, of the audience, of the intention…… This kind of history then challenges the validity of making broad based historical generalisations. Each study is self contained. Eventually there are a large number of well documented studies with little cross connection.”
Romila Thapar has certain objections to this school which are as follows, firstly, there attitude against generalisation is not acceptable to her as she thinks that by strictly avoiding generalisations there is a possibility of missing the big picture. She states that this school, ‘has no framework of explanation which relates itself to a central point and to which each study can refer’. So, there is a large possibility of missing the complete picture. Secondly, she also disagrees with the axiom of this school that all readings are equally significant and that there can be no prioritisation of readings. This makes it in form similar to 19th century historiography which believed that all sources are equal.
In her view this school of historiography is still to make an impact on the historiography of pre-modern India. But, it has had a great impact on the history of the third world and has encouraged international comparative studies.
Her final conclusions are as follows:
The modern historiography of India is a continuing dialogue between colonial, nationalist and post-colonial interpretations. This has enriched historical theory and has also sharpened the debate and evaluation of comprehending the Indian past. She opines that this will provide for a more perceptive understanding of the past, which she thinks is essential on order to understand the present.
[S1]The nationalist interpretation during the colonial period.
[S2]This was in the context of the raging debate in the t hen European society regarding the superiority of the Aryan race.
[S3]The idea of India being a spiritual, non-materialistic, a-historical and a stagnant civilisation.