For better politics and intellectual legitimation, we must know about our vast historical traditions.


Delhi’s Aakar Books has done well to reprint the Professor Mohibbul Hasan edited volume, Historians of Medieval India, which is a fine collection of good old essays on many aspects of history-writing in its various dimensions. Researches in historical and intellectual traditions in medieval and early modern India are particularly welcome in these times when politics is bereft of any intellectual basis, leading to violent mobs being unleashed on the streets to suppress dissenting voices. Institutional corruption and social upheavals are a matter of serious concern, which gets aggravated by the intellectual bankruptcy of those at the helm.

It is important to combat the widespread ignorance about the vibrant cultural and intellectual traditions in ancient and medieval India—both within Western influenced academia since the 19th century and in the popular domain where no intellectual engagements are possible in these times of uncultured and violent mobs taking law into their own hands. It is precisely because the current level of education and intellectual training is so low that violent methods to suppress the dissenting voices remain the only option. The political domain is not intellectually equipped to argue and justify divergent and often conflicting positions. The usual blame game is a matter of shame, which cannot take us as a modern progressive nation or society very far.

Secular historians have been discredited, and people with strong nationalist credentials of traditional Hindu kind and fine reputation as outstanding scholars are missing for now. There is no serious attempt at reviving and building a strong basis for intellectual justification of power. This is despite the fact that Indian, even clearly identifiable Hindu, traditions have been so vibrant in the past for centuries together. People fighting for Hindu supremacy today are ignorant about their own traditions and thus have no cultural agenda actually; they just want to capture power and enjoy it arbitrarily. Beyond this is a dead-end. Some knowledge and lessons from history can help, but those at the helm are not seemingly interested. For a better politics and intellectual legitimation of it, it is necessary to have some idea of the vast historical traditions in India. Instead of promoting this to develop intellectual basis of their arguments, those in power can shut down institutions, and dub political and intellectual critiques as discredited opposition which can be brutally suppressed with impunity.

India’s long history of civilisational scale, with big empire-building, flourishing economy and amazing cultural diversity, has been captured in its vibrant historical traditions in a whole range of languages—Sanskrit, Persian and a variety of regional vernaculars. In terms of forms and style, they presented many ways of looking at political and cultural processes, from universal and general histories to national and regional ones, as well as histories of dynasties and historical biographies of men, and sometimes also, women who mattered. They also offered versified and celebratory narratives of heroic deeds of warriors and conquerors and formal prose chronicling and analysing complex political activities, humongous conquests and aggressive claims of sovereignty. These were either done as independent study of the past or as court-chronicles representing His Majesty’s Voice. Literary and cultural histories and historical biographies of poets, writers, intellectuals and religious gurus further informed the intellectual domains in all their excellence.

Important examples of Sanskrit historical traditions from early medieval and medieval India include several texts of itihasa-purana, charit and vanshavali. Banabhatta’s Harshacharita and Kalhana’s Rajatarangini are excellent works of these genres, and of particular significance is Srivara’s Zaina-Rajatarangini, devoted to the 15th-century Sultan of Kashmir, Zainul Abidin. Persian tarikh, or history, includes some very fine works of political history by Ziyauddin Barani (Tarikh-i-Firuz Shahi), cultural texts of a Sufi-like poet and chronicler Amir Khusrau, Abu’l Fazl’s Akbarnama, celebrating Mughal imperial ideology under Akbar and a sharp critique of the latter by Abdul Qadir Badauni in his Muntakhab-ut-Tawarikh. The country’s vast diversity is further reflected in vernacular histories: including Assamese Buranjis, Bengali Kulajis, Hindi Akhyans, Rajasthani Khyats, Marathi Bakhars and a host of other forms and ways in which regional aspirations and identities were articulated. Together they comprise a huge corpus of historical literature in so many languages. Some of these have been ably discussed in the volume edited by Mohibbul Hasan.

Society and politics informed by literature, history and philosophy together created conditions for a civilised cultural context in which people did not need to kill each other, on the pretext of who is more righteous and entitled: vegetarian or otherwise, Assamese or Bengali, upper-caste/lower-caste, or Hindu/Muslim for that matter. Arguments were, indeed, many, but a peaceful consensus for respectful coexistence has been the modus vivendi. That’s the only way forward for a large subcontinental country like India.