The History of India Is Complex and Complicated. It Cannot Be Neatly Sanitised.


In April 2023, there arose a set of governmental moves to delete large chunks (in the name of “rationalisation”) from NCERT history textbooks. Kumkum Roy, a former professor of history at JNU, in her recent article in The India Forum, gives a detailed account of the deletions – especially in the section ‘Our Pasts I’ in Class VI textbooks. She notes that any and all references to diversity and socio-cultural difference in India’s deep and complex past are sought to be ironed out. This includes one of Asoka’s edicts which asks citizens to practice tolerance towards persons of other faiths, and try to co-exist peacefully. Crucially, a large part of the subcontinent’s past that involves Muslim rule has been part of such deletion proposals. The renowned historian Romila Thapar wrote in The Wire:

History is based on a continuity of events. It makes little sense to delete large sections of it, as such deletions inevitably confuse both teachers and students. Thus, to jump from the early to the late second millennium AD, and to preferably avoid teaching “Muslim history” can only result in immense confusion. Discussion of the impact of events gets stymied if there are breaks that create huge blanks in the narrative, or else deletions that annul the centrality of discussing an event in order to understand it or observing connections between various actions. Can one really discuss the assassination of a major political leader – in this case Gandhi – without mentioning who exactly the assassin was, what were his possible motives and what resulted as the political aftermath of the event?

Given these comprehensive critiques of the logics of “rationalisation” through which a massive act of public forgetting is being engineered, I seek to look at the practice of public consumption of history itself – its emotional and psychological impact. I wish to examine in this essay, a sense of history through which our everyday life is made possible, considering that the historical imagination is accessed all the time even though most people do not study history in university or go on to become professional historians. I want to go back in time and collect a few historical instances of a syncretic, contradictory sense of India – you may call it Bharat or Hindustan. This idea, M.A. Asif says, existed in rudimentary versions in medieval India, and was definitely not solely an invention of British historians and anthropologists. There is a geographical, cultural, intellectual and aesthetic consensus among court historians on what this entity – Hindustan – might look like. He writes of the historical work written by 17th c. CE historian of the court Adil Shah II, Firishta, in the book The Loss of Hindustan: The Invention of India:

For Firishta’s Hindustan, the intellectual geography has cities such as Ghazni, Kabul, Peshawar, Srinagar, Lahore, Uch, Thatta, Agra, Awadh, Patna, Jaunpur, Dhaka, Gulbarga, Golkonda, Bijapur, Chitor, Ujjain, Patna, Ahmedabad, and Surat, to name the most prominent cities from the tenth to the seventeenth centuries…. We cannot, in any analytical way, divide the histories of these cities along with the lines of ideologies – there is no Hindu period followed by a Muslim period.

This vast expanse of land, needless to say, is diverse and complex. Not only are there many kingdoms, and many kinds of rule – both Hindu and Muslim – the rise of Buddhism and Jainism influenced the social and religious landscape significantly. By the year 1615, when Sir Thomas Roe appeared in the court of Mughal Emperor Jahangir, as a representative of the English king James I, India was an extremely thriving economy and could boast of a composite Indic-Islamic cultural fabric. The historian Audrey Truschke shows in her book The Language of History: Sanskrit Narratives of Indo-Muslim Rule that Jain monks and scholars of Sanskrit regularly found patronage in Mughal courts.



British ambassador Thomas Roe in Mughal emperor Jahangir’s court. Photo: Public domain, via UK parliament

We also know from the comprehensive biography of Dara Shikoh by Supriya Gandhi [The Emperor Who Never Was: Dara Shukoh in Mughal India] – the eldest of Shah Jahan’s sons – who took an active interest in Sufism as well as Indic metaphysical traditions. Significantly, he translated the Upanishads into Persian. Thus, we get a picture of a very cosmopolitan India in medieval times, albeit replete with caste and other hierarchies. It is this contradictory account of a long and complicated history that the textbook deletions seem to want to hide from our children. In so doing, not only do we misinform our children, we also generate a stunted relationship with the concept of the past (or many pasts).


Our consumptive approach to the history of India (or the Indian sub-continent) is primarily to neaten and straighten out interlinked, contradictory accounts of our collective, overlapping pasts. My call here is to urge Indian citizens to accept history as subjective, narrative accounts of the past by different people whose perspectives emerged from how they were situated in an era, and within a political establishment. Further, we often impose our contemporary categories – nation-state, state-church divide, secularism – on the past, and end up judging the past as though it were supposed to be an extension of our past.

These attitudes to history and the historical imagination must be corrected in educational institutions (schools included) in order to take the right perspective on the idea of India, as it is embedded in this subcontinent’s – stretching from the Hindu Kush mountains to the Indian Ocean – deep pasts.

What are our relations to diverse realms of our deep past? Deep pasts have laid traces on our collective memory even as we learn the stories of kings and princes and gods and goddesses and wars and festivals from centuries ago. Ram and Sita and Draupadi and Arjun and Krishna form our collective inheritance with which we imagine an India of the deep past – pasts whose temporal measurements are not available to us. They are ingredients of myth, but myth mixes with history in the Indian historical imagination. Historical characters – great monarchs like Akbar and Ashoka – are remembered in almost mythical registers, and the god Ram is remembered through his historically marked birthplace, Ayodhya. Traces of myth generate sacred geographies across the subcontinent for all religions. Diana Eck calls this network “tirthas”, a mytho-geography. Historical characters like the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb or Mahmud of Ghazni are remembered primarily as villains of history for acts such as the desecration of temples like the wealthy, powerful temple of Somnath. Many historical characters can easily be cast in the mould of exemplary goodness or badness. Claiming continuity of our own identity with good or bad characters of history produces pride and/or shame for us in the current time.

Why do we feel the need to take sides with history? Why is it difficult to accept the past with a bit of ambivalence? It rightly concerns us today, but it should not shape our present identity by assuming some king or emperor of the past is ours for the taking. Nor should it give us pride or shame to be of the same ethnicity or religion as some emperor or king who did a right or wrong thing. This ambivalence is important to cultivate in order to render a working political relationship with history. Our relationship with history, in turn, shapes our relationship with political ideologies that determine the present. We will be able to take an attitude of distance and sobriety to many violences of our current times, if we are able to stop attaching historical burdens to present currents of harm and violence. I am primarily talking here about communal, caste and gender violence. Our society and nation are replete with horrific instances of such violence. We render these violences and their implications opaque when we falsely attach them to historical incidents of violence.


Let me transition to telling the story of Bharat or Hindustan not through the dry facts of historical continuity and/or rupture, but through the melodic register of poetry. Love, earthly and divine, features predominantly in any shape of this idea of India. Love for an intimate one as a lover or an admirer is everywhere in literary renditions of Lord Krishna’s leela with Radha, his primary consort, in the Braj region. It begins as early as Jayadeva’s Gitagovinda written in Sanskrit in the 12th century. One finds the early impressions of a character called Radha in the songs of Andal in modern Karnataka as early as the eighth century. Radha and Krishna perform earthly and divine love in assuming an inseparable form in Vaishnava theology that is written by various saints and mystics across the 13th century to the 16th century – including Roop and Jeev Goswami, Madhavacharya, Vallabhacharya, Sri Ramanuj and later poets and mystics like Surdas, Ravidas, Mirabai. The Braj region located in modern Uttar Pradesh, on the banks of the now-heavily-polluted river Yamuna (also widely worshipped as Yamunaji or Yamunarani), grew into a sacred geography that stages Krishna’s adolescence and youth – invoking in the devotee public emotions of dasya, sakhya, vatsalya, madhurya – servitude, friendship, companionship, amour (my translation). This range of emotions are versions of a combined love for the gods, for the community, and for the landscape. Such accounts of individual, social and divine love are found across languages and regions of India. These accounts do not make the history of violence go away.

They instead destabilise history that we learn to parrot through a predictable schema of villains and heroes. These poems and songs across two millenia, collected from across regions, languages and faiths, further show that Indians knew how to love strangers, people and communities who they did not quite understand. It’s the kind of love that in modern, secular language we come to recognise as ‘tolerance’. It is this rich register of love that we are disconnected from today as modern citizens.

I will discuss two poems, both modern, showing a longing for inhabitation of an Indic longtime. I use the word longtime when I could very well have said historical time, but when that is not measured in categories of modern importance like nation, citizenship, war, sovereignty, and so on.

The first poem is a yearning for a lost city, written in the modern era connoting a pain for a Bharat or Hindustan that is lost forever, leaving behind only traces or residues in language and space. These histories cannot be written but in poetry and song.

Magadh by Srikant Verma

Which way lies the city of Magadh?
Listen, O rider of the horse.
From Magadh I come
And to Magadh
I must return.

Which way shall I turn?
To the North of South?
Or to the East of West?
Lo, there lies Magadh!
And now it is gone!

It was only yesterday
That I had left Magadh behind,
It was only yesterday
That the people of Magadh had said.
Do not leave Magadh
I had given them my word.
That before the Sun rises
I shall be back

And now there is no Magadh.
Aren’t you looking for Magadh as well?
This is not the Magadh.
That you have read about in books
This is the Magadh which you

Like me

Have lost forever.

Translated from Hindi by Mrinal Pande. Reproduced from The Bloomsbury Anthology of Great Indian Poems.

The poet here yearns for a place or a feeling called Magadh. Magadh emerges as a signpost for historical amnesia. History allows us a window to keep score and calculate revenge, but this poem underscores an abyss through which a collective, modern agony is accessed.

In the next poem, written in the 1970s (most likely in Bombay because that is where the bilingual poet Arun Kolatkar was based), we find a timeless yearning for god, who is not mentioned explicitly but implied. Politically fuelled history fails us where these poems apply themselves. These poems arise out of a modern abyss – we live in this time making the most rational choices that we can make in our circumstances, when we vote, buy cars, breathe polluted air, protest government policy, all the while feeling a collective pain of a land that is lost to our conscious memory. That belongs to our multifarious gods, that land has fed our ancestors, the lands stands to this day bearing all the environmental violence that we inflict upon. The metaphor of ‘stone’ (implying the deity built in stone) recurs in the poem – the stone, to me, also reflects the mute enduring capacity of the land itself. This collective pain is amplified by the public consumption, erasure and manipulation of history (in textbooks and beyond).

Chaitanya by Arun Kolatakar

sweet as grapes
are the stone of jejuri
said chaitanya.

he popped a stone
in his mouth
and spat out gods

Arun Kolatkar, reproduced from Jejuri, NYRB Classics, 2005.

These poems are highlights of a modern disconnect that the current controversy over textbook deletion exemplifies. We have lost, as a citizenry, a finger on the textures of our past. Magadh is lost not only in geopolitics but in our imagination. The rock or stone that recurs in Kolatkar’s poems are a sign of the everyday lived in a conversation with various forms and iterations of the divine. These are textures of time lost in our current vocabulary. Their traces survive sometimes in the pages of poetry and fiction. They survive at other times in loud protests over this or that historical event that we interpret as sources of our own ignominy or pride. I would choose the former over the latter. As we protest the large-scale deletions of our past from textbooks that tell Indian history to our children, it is important to remember not to own historical names and events in order to take sides in our current political battles.

A version of this article has been published in the Marathi magazine Sarvankash.

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