At a recent seminar in Delhi University, the vice-chancellor of JNU made a tough case for history as a knowledge system based on sacredness of facts. She was seeking to straighten the historical record by spotlighting one such fact that she claims has been distorted by professional historians. According to her, Indian civilisation is the fountain of Indian nationalism and its statehood (and not the Indian Constitution). She makes her argument for India as a “civilisational state” while admonishing the historians for being more invested in their interpretations than in facts of history. Are historical facts, as the VC assumes, objective evidence of past happenings? Do they come to us unmediated by any other reality?
Such a notion of facts has long been contested by both social and natural scientists. Even EH Carr, whom she (mis)interprets believed that not all facts served as evidence, and it was historian’s subjectivity that distinguished one from the other. The crucial variable in historian’s search for facts, what gets construed as facts, the way facts are narrated and the imagery that evokes certain facts for the readers is the historian’s framework. Even within science, facts do not have the same meaning for all scientists. Thomas Kuhn argued in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) that the same facts seen from diverse paradigms can appear different. One’s framework, therefore, serves as the lens or filter through which a historian examines “facts” and comes up with “interpretations”.
Civilization as a framework became a unit of study with Arnold J Toynbee’s Civilization on Trial (1948). Previously, the term “civilisation” was used in the 19th century in different contexts by the Orientalists and Indians like Rabindranath Tagore but it came into academic language to describe an ancient social formation with archaeologist V Gordon Childe’s Man Makes Himself (1936). Childe identified several human achievements that were essential for a society to be called a civilisation. For him, a civilisation was a homogenous and internally cohesive entity, one without diversity and difference. The idea harbored an imagination of a Golden Age, which was meant to be a celebration of the grand human conquest over nature. The term civilisation thus entered common parlance as a European cultural framework which, for instance, celebrated Greek civilisation’s democracy but invisibilised its brutal slave system. What remained in view were the triumphs and not the savagery and exploitation that undergirded the very idea of civilisation.
What vision of Indian history does the civilisational lens open up? True to its European antecedents, this framework freezes time and immobilises history by mothballing the golden human age in the very ancient past (Satyug) and where the present becomes a regression (Kaliyug). The time of the past is believed to hold in its belly an eternal truth from which evolved the notion of Hindu universalism. That is, the idea of Hinduism as a civilisation coterminous with the idea of India – spiritual, non-violent, and assimilative. And one that would become the fountain of Indian nationalism. This sanatan dharma, however, was believed to have been degraded with the passage of time as a result of contact with the barbarian Other (Muslims) that now needs to be recovered and protected for India to become a vishwaguru. For the cultural nationalist, Indian civilisation is a resplendent tableau of high Brahmanical culture with Sanskrit at its core. It valourises Chola conquest in the same breath as the idea of universal brotherhood (Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam) and holds up 3,000 crore Hindu Gods as emblematic of Indian diversity. The VC’s speech further assimilates the Dravidian history into what is primarily a north Indian Brahmanical discourse by talking about the Chola empire and the Tamil culture as part of the larger pan-Indian Hindu identity.
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This civilisational understanding of Indian history, much like that of the ancient Greek civilisation, rests on a willful forgetting of the exploitation of women and the oppression of laboring castes, pastoral, nomadic and forest communities. It forgets that the genealogy of mass movements in India starts with Jotiba Phule and not with Bal Gangadhar Tilak as stated in the VC’s speech. As shown by late sociologist Sharmila Rege, Tilak, in fact, drew on the mobilization of the satyashodhak jalsa when he started the Ganapati festival in 1898. Later he went on to co-opt Shivaji as the go-brahman pratipalak, as an anti- Muslim leader. For the Dalits, this variant of Indian civilisation is a story of Aryan cruelty, Lord Rama beheading Shambhuka, and savarna masters violating their women. In their haste to dislodge the Constitution, one wonders if the adherents of the civilisational framework realise how inherently violent, elite and European this epistemic frame is.
The past does not reveal itself to us on its own but comes to us refracted through our frameworks which, in turn, make only certain kinds of pasts available to us. History is a very potent form of authenticating the knowledge of the past and can, therefore, help in excavating the manner in which power is upheld or critiqued. How does a particular framework conceive of power, does it legitimate, authenticate and establish power or does it question, unsettle, and overturn power? In order words, what kind of social order does this history celebrate and what type of social hierarchies does it project as desirable? Power is the static noise, the low hum with which history buzzes. It is power that creates distortion.
This column first appeared in the print edition on May 28, 2022 under the title ‘Power, not civilisation’. The writer is professor of history, Ashoka University. The views are that of the writer’s alone.