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Hypocrisy and Indian History: A Public Statement

(I did not write this post. Here is the original source. Please sign the petition, if you have not)

On 26 October, 53 Indian historians voiced alarm at what they perceived to be the country’s “highly vitiated atmosphere” and protested against attempts to impose “legislated history, a manufactured image of the past, glorifying certain aspects of it and denigrating others….” This was soon followed by an “Open letter from overseas historians and social scientists”, 176 of them, warning against, “a dangerously pervasive atmosphere of narrowness, intolerance and bigotry” and “a monolithic and flattened view of India’s history.”

Such closely-linked statements appearing with clockwork regularity in India and abroad—there have been several more from various “intellectual” circles—are a well-orchestrated campaign to create a bogeyman and cry wolf. They are neither intellectual nor academic in substance, but ideological and, much more so, political.

As historians, archaeologists and academics specializing in diverse aspects of Indian civilization, we wish to respond to these hypocritical attempts to claim the moral high ground. Many of the signatories of the above two statements by Indian and “overseas” historians have been part of a politico-ideological apparatus which, from the 1970s onward, has come to dominate most historical bodies in the country, including the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), and imposed its blinkered view of Indian historiography on the whole academic discipline.

Anchored mainly in Marxist historiography and leftist ideology, with a few borrowings from postmodernism, the Annales School, Subaltern and other studies, this new School, which may be called “Leftist” for want of a better term, has become synonymous with a number of abusive and unscholarly practises; among them:

  1. A reductionist approach viewing the evolution of Indian society almost entirely through the prism of the caste system, emphasizing its mechanisms of “exclusion” while neglecting those of integration without which Indian society would have disintegrated long ago.
  2. A near-complete erasure of India’s knowledge systems in every field philosophical, linguistic, literary, scientific, medical, technological or artistic—and a general under-emphasis of India’s important contributionsto other cultures and civilizations. In this, the Leftist School has been a faithful inheritor of colonial historiography, except that it no longer has the excuse of ignorance. Yet it claims to provide an accurate and “scientific” portrayal of India!
  3. A denial of the continuity and originality of India’s Hindu-Buddhist-Jain-Sikh culture, ignoring the work of generations of Indian and Western Indologists. Hindu identity, especially, has been a pet aversion of this School, which has variously portrayed it as being disconnected from Vedic antecedents, irrational, superstitious, regressive, barbaric — ultimately “imagined” and, by implication, illegitimate.
  4. A refusal to acknowledge the well-documented darker chapters of Indian history, in particular the brutality of many Muslim rulers and their numerous Buddhist, Jain, Hindu and occasionally Christian and Muslim victims (ironically, some of these tyrants are glorified today); the brutal intolerance of the Church in Goa,Kerala and Puducherry; and the state-engineered economic and cultural impoverishment of India under the British rule. While history worldwide has wisely called for millions of nameless victims to be remembered, Indian victims have had to suffer a second death, that of oblivion, and often even derision.
  5. A neglect of tribal histories: For all its claims to give a voice to “marginalized” or “oppressed” sections of Indian society, the Leftist School has hardly allowed aspace to India’s tribal communities and the rich contributions of their tribal belief systems and heritage. When it has condescended to take notice, it has generally been to project Hindu culture and faith traditions as inimical to tribal cultures and beliefs, whereas in reality the latter have much more in common with the former than with the religions imposed on them through militant conversions.
  6. A biased and defective use of sources: Texts as well as archaeological or epigraphic evidence have been misread or selectively used to fit preconceived theories. Advances of Indological researches in the last few decades have been ignored, as have been Indian or Westernhistorians, archaeologists, anthropologists who have differed from the Leftist School. Archaeologists who developed alternative perspectivesafter considerable research have beensidelined or negatively branded.Scientific inputs from many disciplines, from palaeo-environmental to genetic studies have been neglected.
  7. A disquieting absence of professional ethics: The Leftist School has not academically critiqued dissenting Indian historians, preferring to dismiss them as “Nationalist” or “communal”. Many academics have suffered discrimination, virtual ostracism and loss of professional opportunities because they would not toe the line, enforced through political support since the days of Nurul Hasan. The Indian History Congress and the ICHR, among other institutions,became arenas of power play and political as well as financial manipulation. In effect, the Leftist School succeeded in projecting itself as the one and only, crushing debate and dissent and polarizing the academic community.

While we reject attempts to portray India’s past as a glorious and perfect golden age, we condemn the far more pernicious imposition by the Leftist School of a “legislated history”, which has presented an alienating and debilitating self-image to generations of Indian students, and promoted contempt for their civilizational heritage. The “values and traditions of plurality that India had always cherished in the past” are precisely those this School has never practised.We call for an unbiased and rigorous new historiography of India.

  1. Dilip K. Chakrabarti, Emeritus Professor, Cambridge University, UK; Dean, Centre of Historical and Civilizational Studies, Vivekananda International Foundation, Chanakyapuri, Delhi; member, ICHR
  2. Saradindu Mukherji, historian, retired from Delhi University; member, ICHR
  3. Nanditha Krishna, Director, CPR Institute of Indological Research, Chennai; member, ICHR
  4. M.D. Srinivas, former professor of theoretical physics; former vice-chairman, Indian Institute of Advanced Study; chairman, Centre for Policy Studies, Chennai; member, ICHR
  5. Meenakshi Jain, associate professor of history, Delhi University; member, ICHR
  6. Michel Danino, guest professor, IIT Gandhinagar; member, ICHR
  7. B.B. Lal, former Director General, Archaeological Survey of India
  8. R.S. Bisht, former Joint Director General, Archaeological Survey of India
  9. R. Nagaswamy, former Director of Archaeology, Govt. of Tamil Nadu; Vice Chancellor, Sri ChandrasekharendraSaraswathiViswaMahavidyalaya, Kanchipuram
  10. B.M. Pande, Former Director, Archaeological Survey of India
  11. DayanathTripathi, former Chairman, ICHR; former Head, Dept. of Ancient History, Archaeology and Culture, D.D.U. Gorakhpur University, Gorakhpur; former Visiting Professor at Cambridge, British Academy
  12. R.C. Agrawal, President, Rock Art Society of India; former Member Secretary of ICHR
  13. K.V. Raman, former professor of Ancient Indian History & Archaeology, University of Madras
  14. Padma Subrahmanyam, Dancer and Research Scholar
  15. Kapil Kapoor, former Rector, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; Chancellor, Mahatma Gandhi Antararashtriya Hindi Vishwavidyalaya, Wardha (Maharashtra)
  16. Madhu Kishwar, Professor, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, New Delhi
  17. ChandrakalaPadia, Vice Chancellor, Maharaja Ganga Singh University (Rajasthan); Chairperson, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla
  18. SachchidanandSahai, Ph.D. (Paris), National Professor in Epigraphy, Ministry of Culture, Government of India, Advisor to PreahVihear National Authority under the Royal Government of Cambodia; member, ICHR
  19. J.K. Bajaj, Director Centre for Policy Studies, Former Member ICSSR
  20. MakarandParanjape, Professor of English, JNU; Visiting Global South Fellow, University of Tuebingen
  21. NikhilesGuha, former professor of history, University of Kalyani, West Bengal; member, ICHR
  22. Issac C.I., member, ICHR
  23. (Dr.) Purabi Roy, member, ICHR
  24. Jagbir Singh, Former Professor and Head, Dept. of Punjabi, University of Delhi; Life Fellow, Punjabi University, Patiala.
  25. G.J. Sudhakar, former Associate Professor, Dept. of History, Loyola College, Chennai
  26. Bharat Gupt, Former Associate Professor, Delhi University
  27. O.P. Kejariwal, Central Information Commissioner & Nehru Fellow
  28. S.C. Bhattacharya, former Professor and HOD, Ancient History, Culture and Archaeology, Allahabad University; former National Fellow, IIAS, Shimla
  29. S.K. Chakraborty, former professor, Management Centre for Human Values, Indian Institute of Management Calcutta
  30. AmarjivaLochan, Associate Professor in History, Delhi University; President, South and Southeast Asian Association for the Study of Culture & Religion (SSEASR) under IAHR, affiliated to the UNESCO
  31. R.N. Iyengar, Distinguished Professor, Jain University, Bangalore
  32. Professor (Dr) Nath, former Professor of History, University of Rajasthan, Jaipur
  33. KiritMankodi, archaeologist, consultant to Project for Indian Cultural Studies, Mumbai
  34. K. Ramasubramanian, Cell for Indian Science and Technology in Sanskrit, IIT Bombay; Council Member International Union for History and Philosophy of Science; member, RashtriyaSanksritParishad
  35. M.S. Sriram, Retired Professor and Head, Department of Theoretical Physics, University of Madras; Member Editorial Board, Indian Journal of History of Science; Former Member, Research Council for History of Science, INSA
  36. Amartya Kumar Dutta, Professor of Mathematics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata
  37. Godabarisha Mishra, Professor and Head, Dept. of Philosophy, University of Madras
  38. R. Ganesh, Shathavadhani, Sanskrit scholar
  39. Sri Banwari, Academic and Journalist; former Resident Editor, Jansatta
  40. S. Krishnan, Associate Professor, Dept of Mathematics, IIT Bombay
  41. Rajnish Kumar Mishra, Associate Professor, Special Centre for Sanskrit Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
  42. VikramSampath, Director, Symbiosis School of Media and Communication; former Director of Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) – SRC; historian and author
  43. K. Gopinath, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore
  44. M.A. Venkatakrishnan, former Professor and Head, Dept. of Vaishnavism, Madras University
  45. Sumathi Krishnan, Musician and Musicologist
  46. PremaNandakumar, Author and translator
  47. Santosh Kumar Shukla, Associate Professor, Special Centre for Sanskrit Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

The above list was released on 17 November; on 18 November, three scholars had been contacted but could not send their answer in time owing to the flood situation in Chennai. We include them here for the record:

  1. Siniruddha Dash, former Professor & Head, Dept. of Sanskrit, University of Madras
  2. Mamata Mishra, Managing Trustee, Prof. K.V. Sarma Research Foundation
  3. ChithraMadhavan, historian and epigraphist

(via IndiaFacts)

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Guest Post: Michel Danino on the antiquity of Indus-Saraswati Civilization

[This post is in response to this news item – “Archaeologists confirm Indian civilization is 2000 years older than previously believed”. It is adapted from Michel’s response on IndiaArchaeology eGroup – JK]

Early farming village in Mehrgarh, c. 7000 BC, with houses built with mud bricks.

Early farming village in Mehrgarh, c. 7000 BC

Seing that several blogs and mass mailers are repeating this piece of “news”, I would like to emphasize that the article sensationalizes things without understanding the issue. The Indus-Sarasvati civilization (accepting that the word “civilization” connotes urbanism) emerges around 2600 BC, and those dates have not been challenged.

It has long been established — for at least 20 years — that its antecedents at Mehrgarh (Baluchistan) go back to the 8th millennium BCE, in the context of a Neolithic rural society, that is with just stone tools, yet a fairly advanced agricultural economy. The new development (“new” meaning some seven years) is the comparable antiquity of the earliest stages at Bhirrana (Haryana) excavated by the late L.S. Rao. This is also a rural stage, which probably straddles the Neolithic and the Chalcolithic; the pottery type is the Hakra ware, which has emerged at a few other sites of the Sarasvati basin in Haryana (such as Farmana) and Cholistan (in Pakistan).

How such antecedents, whether in Baluchistan or in the Sarasvati region and probably with contributions from other regions, converged towards the Early Harappan stage (usually dated from 3800 BCE) is the very interesting question which should have been addressed instead. As too often, the media hype conceals the real issues.

In any case the dates for the Indus cities — Mohenjo-daro, Harappa, Kalibangan or Dholavira — in their Mature urban stage will not change. They are firmly in the 3rd millennium BCE, as hundreds of carbon 14 and thermoluminescence have established.

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Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle wrote that some human communities are meant to dominate others. David Hume in the 18th century carried the theory further by suggesting that Blacks are inferior to the Whites. There were others like the French naturalist Georges Cuvier and British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper who produced variations of this racist theory. In Cloud Atlas the movie, Hugo Weaving’s various characters remind the tormented that there is a natural order for things and it cannot be upset and Tom Hanks who plays Henry Goose tells Adam Ewing that the strong always prey on the weak as he tries to kill him.

This exploitation of the weak by the strong runs as a thread across David Mitchell’s epic novel Cloud Atlas. Though the movie is out now, let’s start with the book. Unlike any other book I have read both due to the structure and the topics it handles, the book has six novellas set in different time periods. While The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing is set in the 1850s on a ship sailing the pacific ocean towards San Francisco, Letters from Zedelghem is about Robert Frobisher, who becomes an apprentice to a great musician in Belgium. Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery is about an impending nuclear disaster and is set in the 70s in California and The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish is set in the present in London. The futuristic pieces are An Orison of Sonmi~451 set in Seoul in the near future and Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After is set in the post-apocalypse period.

It is not six novellas one after the other, but more like one inside the other. The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing ends abruptly and the second one starts. The second one is left incomplete and the third one starts. As the Russian dolls come out one after the other and it reaches Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After,  the stories go backwards till they finish with The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing. Though they are set in different periods, they are not disconnected. Thus the journal of Adam Ewing is discovered by Robert Frobisher. Luisa Rey gets hold of Frobisher’s music piece and her own story lands as a novel on Cavendish’s desk. Sonmi~451, the heroine of the Neo Seoul piece watches a movie adaptation of Cavendish’s life and Sonmi~451 herself becomes a goddess for the folks who survive the Fall. But the connection among the characters is beyond this simple technique; the characters are the same people who are born across centuries and the connection is much deeper. Or as Mitchell said, “Literally all of the main characters, except one, are reincarnations of the same soul in different bodies throughout the novel identified by a birthmark.”

Now that’s not it. Each of the pieces is written in the literary style of that period among which the language spoken after the Fall is the most difficult to comprehend. Also, the amount of detail that has gone into each section immerses you into that period. As you get sucked into that story, it abruptly ends and you are transported to another period where you make all the connections with the characters in the previous story. Also the topic dealt with are vast: it goes all the way from slave trade to missionaries converting the natives to corporations feeding fabricants with fabricants to racial and economic issues. Reading the book was a mindblowing experience.


In the movie, the treatment is a bit different. While the book spends lot of time in one episode before moving to the next, the movie cuts from one to another abruptly. It goes back and forth in time connecting events logically and visually. But the most interesting decision the directors made is to cast the same set of people across the stories and thus we get to watch Tom Hanks as the villain in the Adam Ewing story and as a good hearted shepherd in the post-apocalypse world. Some portions of the movie differ from the book (There is no Eva for Frobisher to fall in love with; Sonmi~451 does not realize that her escape was choreographed by the totalitarian administration; the post-apocalypse characters do not leave earth), but the new versions do not irritate a bit.

Since I had read the book, the movie was easy to follow, but I am not sure if it was the same experience for folks who came without prior knowledge. While reading the book, the thought that comes to mind is that this book is not filmable, but they managed to make a good movie out of it.

See Also:  “Cloud Atlas” author David Mitchell: Adaptation is TranslationReview: ‘Cloud Atlas’ is the Most Daring & Satisfying Film of the Year, Movie Trailer

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In Pragati: Holy War by Nigel Cliff

"Vasco da Gama Leaving Portugal," by John Henry Amshewitz (via Wikipedia)

"Vasco da Gama Leaving Portugal," by John Henry Amshewitz (via Wikipedia)

(This book review was published in the September 2012 issue of Pragati)

Urumi, a Malayalam historical film released last year was set in 1502 CE, the year Vasco da Gama made his second voyage to India. The turning point in that movie is when Gama captures Miri- a ship filled with pilgrims returning from Mecca- off the coast of Kerala and barbarically murders 300 Muslims including women and children over five days. The rest of the movie is about how one of the boys, whose father was killed in that attack, gets his revenge during Gama’s third and final voyage. Though the movie was a work of fiction, filled with historical inaccuracies, it brought to attention an important point: Gama had an agenda much bigger than finding a new trading route.

Nigel Cliff’s book expands on that less mentioned detail. He argues that Gama was serving the apocalyptic agenda of King Manuel who wanted to find the Eastern Christians, destroy the power of Islam, and lead Portugal in conquering Jerusalem. This was essential for the Second Coming and the Last Judgement that was to follow. The voyage to Kerala was just one step in this plan.

15th century values


To understand the primary motivation behind Gama’s dangerous voyage circumnavigating Africa and across the Indian Ocean, we have to understand the state of the world in the 15th century. Portugal was ruled by a religious fanatic whose wedding gift to his wife was the expulsion of the Jews settled in Portugal. Since the year 1500 was approaching, he thought the apocalypse was around the corner and he had to conquer Jerusalem. Since Portugal neither had the wealth nor the power for such a task, the plan was to acquire wealth by entering the lucrative spice trade and gain power by forming an alliance with the Eastern Christians. Once the Islamic power was weakened- by eliminating them from the spice trade- the troops could march to Jerusalem and capture the Holy Land.

The Portuguese knew that India was a rich place from where all the spices came. They also knew that it was the home of Prester John, a supposedly Christian king who had unlimited precious metals and a vast army at his disposal. Once the alliance was formed with the Eastern Christians and their rich and powerful king, the march to Jerusalem would be the next logical step.

To put context into this obsession with capturing Jerusalem, Cliff starts off by examining the relation between Islam and Christianity. As a reaction to the violent expansion of Islam from the 8th century till the 10th, the Pope authorised the Crusades to recapture Jerusalem, which went on for centuries. The Crusades had to be halted following the Mongol invasion and the Black Death that followed, but the feelings behind them never really died out. Those feeling were revived following the fall of Constantinople, Christendom’s glorious city, and something had to be done urgently. For that Vasco da Gama set off to find a new route to India bearing the Crusader’s Cross- the one used by the Knights Templar- as his flag.

Disrupting the spice trade was not the first trick the Portuguese tried. After building a naval fleet, they conducted raiding missions down the coast of Africa, planting crosses wherever they landed. When that failed to yield sufficient revenues, they ventured into slave trade. Since this was a war against the Infidels and the unbelievers, it got the stamp of approval from the Pope who issues various Papal bulls and went so far as to divide the world between Portugal and Spain so that peace is maintained between the colonisers.

Apocalypse Now

King Manuel (via Wikipedia)

King Manuel (via Wikipedia)

After a terrifying voyage, Vasco da Gama’s fleet reached Calicut where he found a large number of Muslim traders. He also observed that the ruler belonged to some other religion. By his worldview- in which he had never encountered Hindus- Gama assumed that naturally the Zamorin had to be Christian. But the Zamorin was unimpressed by Gama and the gifts he bought. Gama kept away from the Muslims to be safe, but eventually was disappointed on two counts. First he assumed that the Eastern Christians would be delighted to see their Western counterparts and the united front would expel the Muslims. Second, he thought that Indians would hand over the spices in exchange for the trinkets they had bought but compared to the richness of Calicut, Gama looked like a beggar. Gama in turn blamed his failure on the Muslims, displayed some basic brutality, and returned back to Portugal where he was received as a hero.

Though Gama did not bring back spices or find Prester John, his voyage sent shock waves across Europe. Manuel wanted to ride on this wave of success and sent another mission under Pedro Cabral with a strong warning for the Muslim traders. Cabral wanted the Zamorin to expel all the Muslims traders or face the wrath of the empire. When their demands were not met, the Portuguese went on a rampage. The destroyed the Arab ships in the port and fired shots at the Zamorin’s palace causing him to flee. A later mission under Joao da Nova escalated the religious war and went back without much progress. Manuel needed a strong willed captain who would force the Indians into submission and for that Vasco da Gama was pressed into service once again and it resulted in the Miri incident.

This time the action was not to be restricted to the Malabar coast. Once force was used to subdue the Indians, the fleet would split into two. One part of the fleet would enforce a blockade of the Arab shipping to the Red Sea area and cripple Egypt’s economy. After Egypt was weakened, the Portuguese would sail up the Red Sea and meet land troops who would have marched across Egypt; together they would conquer Jerusalem. But this plan did not work quite as expected.

Gama once again asked his old nemesis, the Zamorin, to expel the Muslims and yet again the Zamorin refused to comply to the Portuguese pirates. An irate Gama went around hanging Muslims and firing cannons towards the coast. The dead people were mutilated and sent on boats off to the shore as a part of the shock and awe strategy. The Portuguese strength came from their naval superiority and since they did not have sufficient strength to fight the Zamorin’s troops, they left. This voyage was considered a great success compared to the others.

The next captain Francisco Alameda, dispensed with the niceties completely and precipitated such a crisis which resulted in major naval battle in the Arabian Sea. After attacking various African countries and butchering people there, Alameda reached Calicut. Remembering the Passion of Christ and motivated by a rousing speech by a priest, the Portuguese attacked Calicut leaving around 3600 dead. Meanwhile another Portuguese fleet cut off the Egyptian supply chain. Based in Muscat, they terrorised all around and took control over the Western destination ports of the Arab ships. The Egyptians, whose business was seriously affected, sent a fleet to the Indian Ocean which defeated the Portuguese, the first naval defeat for them in the Ocean.

The Colonisers

But the Egyptians were no match for the Portuguese; they scored and easy victory over them as well over the Zamorin and finally a fortress was built in Calicut. It looked as if Jerusalem was within grasp.In fact Manuel sent a fleet towards the Suez, but they came back without attacking Jerusalem. Once Goa became a lucrative market for the Portuguese, they were more interested in settling down and plundering the region by enforcing a pass system. Matters like forced conversions and setting up the Inquisition became more important than capturing Jerusalem.

Though the Malabar coast has been part of a global maritime network since the Roman empire, there was an explosion of trade since 1000 CE due to improved navigational aids, better ship building, better map making and new legal arrangements. Places like Quilon (Kollam), Melaka, Quanzhou, Futsat and Aden became the nerve centers of this network where people and goods moved with ease. According to Manmadhan Ullattil who wrote about the Hubs of the medieval trade (Pragati, June 2009), the arrival of the Portuguese changed the rules of the game as they used force to control trade and establish monopolies.

John Keay in “India: A History” has few lines about the Portuguese and Vasco da Gama; he mentions that when Portugal declared a Viceroy for India, it betrayed the true nature of their ambition. “Worlds Together, Worlds Apart: A History of the World: From 1000 CE to the Present” (Third Edition) (Vol. 2) by Robert Tignor et. al which is used to teach world history at Princeton University, describes the Portuguese brutality in the Malabar coast. But both these books fail to make a connection between the Portuguese voyages to India and the Crusades. Cliff makes a valuable contribution by putting the piety and plunder of the spice trader into a global context.

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