There is little doubt now that the next four years are going to be engaged on a political debate about the nature of India and who its citizens are. Rival ideas of India as a Nehruvian ideal of a secular nation or as a nation of Hindus will be put forward forcefully and battled out. History is a vital part of this debate.
The one central claim often made is that in 1947 India gained Independence after 1,200 years of slavery. This is meant to include Muslims and British as foreign rulers who enslaved India. This is a partial history, even if it was accurate. It is a story of North India and even then only of parts of it, mainly the Hindi belt — the BIMARU states. Muslim rule never reached Assam and the Northeast, not even Bengal for centuries. It did not reach South India. Aurangzeb spent the last 25 years of his life trying to win the Deccan and failed.
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Even the chronology is partial. The incursions of Muhammad Bin Qasim were confined to Sindh, and Mahmud of Ghazni raided Gujarat and Punjab but did not stay to rule. One can date Muslim rule over parts of North India only from the late Thirteenth Century, when the Delhi Sultanate was established, 500 years after Bin Qasim.
South India’s history is totally different. There is a claim frequently made by Indian politicians, often of the BJP, that India has never been an aggressor over other countries. It would be an interesting claim were it true. But it is not. It may be a claim that North Indian-Hindi belt politicians believe. South Indians will know that the Chola King Rajaraja had a maritime empire stretching to Malay islands.
South India did not experience the aggressive incursion of Muslims either. Arabs had been coming to South India for centuries as traders since before the advent of Islam. The Vijayanagara Empire flourished in the South while the Hindi belt had Muslim rule. Even British domination of India has to be dated from 1857 onwards when full hegemony was gained by the British Crown. If any foreign power ruled directly over most of India (with hegemony over princely states), it was the British and that too only for 90 years. The first ‘ruler’ over all of India (albeit after Partition) was President Dr Rajendra Prasad, from January 26, 1950, onwards.
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India has multiple histories. It is a fundamental part of its diversity that it should be so. There are attempts to impose a single monistic structure on it but we can see the limitations of doing so. Take Assam for example. The Assamese are nursing a fragile idea of their ‘nationhood’ – Assamiyat to coin a word. They are Indian but want to preserve their own unique culture and history. So do the Maharashtrians or Tamil speakers or Kashmiris.
Even if one wants to champion a Hindu India, one only has to look at the diversity which is characteristic of Hinduism. There is no single God nor a single Holy Book which all swear by. Hindus are eclectic about who they worship and who they admit into their midst. Ganesh and Hanuman are Gods of all Indian Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs.
India is many, not one.
This article first appeared in the print edition on March 8, 2020 under the title ‘Out of My Mind: India is many, not one’.
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