History as a site of struggle
Historiography is a terrain of contest, reflective of different conceptions of society and ways of realising them
The two defining features of modern Indian history can be identified in the two interrelated processes: the making of India as a nation and the evolution of modernity. All historiographies — be it the colonial, nationalist, Marxist, or post-modernist — in some way or the other, either implicitly or explicitly, address these two issues, although their reasons for doing so are vastly different. Their differences reflect the ideological struggles within the discip
line, rooted in different intellectual persuasions, theoretical assumptions, political perspectives, and social commitments. These ideological struggles in a way form a force behind the changes in the nature of historiography. As such, historiography is a terrain of contest, reflective of different conceptions of society and ways of realising them. The history of ‘modern’ India is no exception, as it evolved during the last two hundred years through different thematic choices and methodological innovations, influenced as they were by different ideological considerations.
The origin and development of modernity in India was not through any organic evolution. Indians were introduced to modernity through the agency of colonialism, as a part of their subjection to the colonial power. One of the channels through which the ideas of modernity were conveyed was colonial historiography, which graphically drew the contrast between the western-modern and the traditional-feudal. Modernity was attributed to whatever the East India Company’s administration undertook in the social, economic, and political life, suggesting thereby the transformative power of the colonial rule. The colonial institutions were actively engaged in propagating these notions, which the liberal intelligentsia internalised and in turn disseminated.
The impression conveyed was that colonial history was the beginning of modernity and the source of progress. Consequently, the traditional order was rejected as obscurantist in favour of the colonial-modern. At the same time, the limitations of this modernity, which had no roots in the ‘native’ soil, could not escape notice. For, colonial modernity was essentially an importation of the ideas and practices that had originated in the west and had no connection whatsoever with the ‘indigenous’ social and intellectual experience and therefore could not be part of the larger social consciousness. Even universal ideas like humanism and rationalism did not succeed in establishing indigenous lineage.
As a result, colonialism as an agency of modernity soon came into question. However, certain aspects of colonial modernity exercised a very powerful ideological influence over the intelligentsia, which coloured its view of the past. The colonial influence continues to persist, albeit in different forms of articulation. Some recent historiographical tendencies, in their effort to focus on the fragment, underplay if not overlook altogether the devastating role that colonialism played in the country’s history. The post-colonial histories, which are engaged in redefining the impact of the colonial subjection, on the other hand, try to valorise the contribution of colonialism to social progress and economic development. That such explanations are gaining academic respectability, political legitimacy, and ‘radical’ acceptance is perhaps an indication of the new climate of intellectual domination.
A religious communitarian view of Indian society as well as of the nation is central to the colonial interpretation of history. The colonial historians conceived India as a country of communities in conflict to which a sense of unity was imparted by the operation of colonial administrative institutions. The neo-colonial historians have suggested that the formation of the nation and the emergence of nationalism were a sequel to it.
This aroused two different responses. The first put forward a concept of nation based upon a sense of modernity devoid of the colonial presence. The second was a religious- communitarian view of the nation that sought to resurrect the past uncritically. While the first view worked within the parameters of modernity, the second was essentially anti- modernist with emphasis on indigenous institutions. The advocates of the first became the champions of secular nationalism and the advocates of the second stood for religious communal identity of the nation. The conflict between these two conceptualisations is a major area of ideological struggle within the discipline.
The departures from colonial history were enmeshed in the quest for a modernity different from the one valorised by colonialism. This was mainly articulated in the nationalist and Marxist historical writings, which became influential during the post-colonial period. The liberation from colonialism was a necessary prerequisite for the construction of real modernity in the understanding of both nationalist and Marxist historiography. The nationalist, however, took a homogenous view of the nation, exclusively emphasising in the process the primary contradiction between the nation and colonialism.
The Marxist, on the other hand, conceptualised the nation as an aggregate of internally differentiated classes and underlined the contradictions between them. Consequently, the Marxist historiography drew attention to the democratic aspirations of hitherto marginalised classes like the peasants and workers, even if the importance of integrating the social categories such as Dalits, Adivasis, and women with the class analysis was not adequately realised. The nationalist and Marxist historical investigations, despite their different ideological moorings, reflected the struggle against colonial ideology, which even after the success of the national liberation movement continued to be quite influential. The ideological struggles implicit in the nationalist and Marxist historiography is conspicuous by their absence in the new tendencies like subaltern and post-modern history.
The nationalist and Marxist histories also conceptualised the nation on the basis of its secular character and explored its strengths and weaknesses as evolved during the colonial and post-colonial periods. In fact, the secular character became a defining feature of these histories. However, during the colonial and post-colonial periods, the nation was increasingly interpreted on religious-communal lines. Such a view was officially sponsored when the Hindu fundamentalist forces gained access to state power. Being based on misrepresentations and misinterpretations, communal history, however, met with strong resistance from the professional practitioners of the discipline. As a result, a discernible retreat of the communal influence is evident in historical writing, at least as of now.
The above tendencies in modern Indian historiography are symptomatic of broader ideological struggles within the discipline. The first is the yet incomplete struggle against the legacy of colonialism, which seems to reappear with different forms of interpretation, attempting in the process to legitimise the colonial past. Such efforts have contemporary relevance in the context of the new forms of imperialist penetration, and their ongoing rationalisation, particularly in the intellectual and cultural domains. The emergence of global history as an alternative to national histories is an indication of the power the forces of globalisation exercise. The second is the struggle against communal influence in historical interpretation. The communal interpretation has not only gained considerable adherents in the discipline but also commands legitimacy in several quarters, including some ‘radical’ schools of thought that share at least some common ground with the communal interpretation, particularly in the analysis of community, tradition, and culture.
At the same time, the influence of post-modernism of which some of these radical sections claim to be the practitioners, tends to rob history of much of its strength as a distinct discipline. It has created the doubt whether history can be written at all. The critique of post-modernism in the field of history is hence an attempt to preserve the essential character of the discipline.
Modern history is a site of ideological struggles. The shape of its future depends upon the course and content of these struggles.
Dr. K.N. Panikkar, former Professor of Modern History at Jawaharlal Nehru University, is currently Vice-Chairman of the Kerala Higher Education Council.
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