Special Reports

Communal Interpretation of Indian History

Communal interpretation works both ways. It is both a product and the generator of communalism. Unity of thought among Hindu and Muslim communal historians along with the British imperialist school did not end with the creation of Pakistan, they still practise communal historiography.

Prof Rafaqat Husain speaking

Prof. Refaqat Ali Khan, former Professor and Head of the Department of History and Dean, Faculty of Humanities and Languages, Jamia Millia Islamia and currently the Vice-Chairman of the Institute of Objective Studies (IOS) made these observations while delivering the Sixth Qazi Mujahidul Islam Memorial Lecture on “Communal Interpretation of Indian History: A Review”, organised by the IOS at the Conference Hall here on 24 May, 2014.

He sought to explain that communal historians used history in several ways with one central theme that the Hindus and Muslims could not and did not live together in peace under one judicial, political and social system. Choice of words was different but both the Hindu and Muslim communalists spoke the same language and some Europeans, whom many of us called the imperialist school, were not different, he said. He pointed out that communal historians had a hostile attitude towards Indian National Congress. Some Muslim leaders thought that the Congress was bent upon setting up caste-Hindu Raj in India and wanted even during the British rule to dominate Muslims. Hindu communal leaders also projected an anti-Hindu image of the Congress.

Prof. Khan argued that the history of a divided people was a product of the divide-and-rule policy of the British Government, which still continues among historians as a hangover.

He divided the historians of the Indian sub-continent into four groups: 1. western/imperialist, 2. Muslim communal historians, 3. Hindu communal historians; and 4. nationalist historians.

He held that there was now a fifth group of new historians who did not regard a religious community as a monolithic unit without internal tensions. Their community consideration was based on occupations/profession and not on religion.

He said that the impact of communal historiography was so complete that the nationalist leaders, including a mass leader like Gandhiji, recognised the presence of separate communities in historical times and stressed the need for unity among them as they had done in medieval times.

Nationalist historians projected Akbar’s “Sulh-e-kul’ while the communalist Hindus and Muslims chose Aurangzeb to project their point of view. He maintained that the British through their historians like Elliot wanted the Hindus to feel that the white man had liberated them from the “cruel, burdensome and agonising slavery,” which was inflicted upon them by the barbarian and savage Muslims.

The nationalist and Marxist scholars had extensively quoted from Elliot’s “Preface” to establish that communal historiography was planned by the British, fertilised by the communalist writers and harvested by the economic interests at the cost of the poor people of both the communities.

Referring to several myths in the Indian history propounded and cherished by communal historians, he said that Hindu communal and the nationalist historians drew great inspiration equally from the greatness of India’s ancient past with one difference -- the communalists were inspired by the ancient period, the Hindu kings and chieftains of medieval period like Rana Pratap and Shivaji whereas the nationalists were as much proud of Akbar as they were of Ashoka.

Commenting on some characteristics of the Hindu communal historiography, he said that they claimed the ancient period of Indian history was most glorious. Even the negative elements were either praised or ignored. Like an arithmetical formula, they had made Indian culture equal to ancient culture and the latter to the Gupta culture which was the “golden age” of Indian history. The medieval period was said to be full of political and religious persecutions whereas there was total tolerance and peace in ancient times.

Prof. Refaqat Ali Khan said that GD Birla, founder of the Birla industrial and commercial empire, through his rich ‘charitable’ Krishanpan Trust with the blessings of the then central minister, KM Munshi, and the intellectual participation of the deadly communal historian, RC Mazumdar, assisted the publication of several volumes, called “History and Culture of Indian People”, which were popularly known as Vidya Bhavan series. It was a typical model of communal historiography.

He opined that pre-independence communal historiography was half-baked history, but the post-independence historiography, including the secular one, was fully mature and evenly baked.

Examples of persecution and intolerance were exceptions rather than a rule in a largely rural society and toleration was universal except in circumstances when the source of livelihood of a group, caste or class got tolerance in ancient and intolerance in medieval India was communal historiography. We have been victims of this kind of historiography. Tolerance was the point of Ashoka’s state policy which he followed almost till the end of his life. However, towards the end of his reign, he pursued a pro-Buddhist policy to the extent that Ajivikas and Jains, who hitherto enjoyed patronage and freedom, were harassed. Finally, Ashoka started suppressing dissenting Buddhist monks and nuns by withdrawing state support and expelling them from Sangha. Narendra Gupta, one of the last kings of Gupta dynasty, raided Magadh and cut down the much respected Bodhi tree at Gaya and wrecked Buddhist foundations wherever he could.

Referring to the communal bias of the eminent historian Jadunath Sarkar against Aurangzeb, Prof. Khan said that he wrote about his demolition of temples in the books while his reference to Kailash temple at Ellora found a place only in a footnote. When Hindu and Muslim rulers needed money they plundered the temples because these had immense wealth. Mosques, on the other hand, had nothing except the brick or stone walls and thus a mosque never attracted the attention of invaders except when it housed enemies. He remarked that “intolerance, oppression, devastation are cruelty” of Muslim monarchs, especially their “intolerance and violence” towards “their Hindu subjects” were so extremely and passionately propagated that the RSS chief, Madhavrao Sedashiv Golwalkar had no hesitation in calling the whole Muslim community, including the artisans, workers and peasants as “murdering hordes,” “murderous bands,” “despoilers,” “free booters,” “the enemy,” “the force of destruction,” “old invaders and foes,” and “our old and bitter enemies”.

He lamented that prestigious publishing houses were also bringing out communal histories, not because they had joined any anti-Muslim gang, but to make money. Unfortunately, there was a large market for anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic literature. One such book was Laine’s “Shivaji: Hindu King in Islamic India” published by the Oxford University Press. The very title of the book smelt foul. The author of the book chose Hindu Marathi authors to project his mission to demonstrate Hindu prejudices and hatred against Muslims and Islam.

Prof. Refaqat Ali Khan laid stress on a positive interpretation of history to project the positive role of Indian Muslims in the country’s history. The fact of history was India’s deep-rooted belief in unity in diversity which is the backbone of Indian civilisation. This was on account of the strength of all communities, including Hindus and Muslims. Hindus and Muslims had been living together in spite of conflicts for several centuries, he said. He likened the noted writer Nirad C. Chaudhari’s comment in his book, “Autobiography of an Unknown Indian,” that it was from the end of 1906 that we became conscious of a new kind of hatred for Muslims to Rabindra Nath Tagore’s observation in his Bengali novel “Ghare Baire” (Home and Outside). He noted that the distortion of history by communal historians of any kind, including the scholars of the West, was a challenge to objective and positive understanding of history. He concluded by saying that communal history generated communalism and communalism encouraged communal history. Both provided sustenance to each other.   

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-30 June 2014 on page no. 13

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