Category Archives: History

How religions work: The Assam example

Critics of Islam write that the religion has been, historically, a vehicle for Arab imperialism, based on two important aspects: the prominence of Mecca and the insistence that the Quran must be studied in Arabic (I do not refer to Islamophobes here, who do not have the patience for even such a partially-nuanced argument). There may be some substance to this, although the rest of Islam, including its history, was created with considerable non-Arab influence.

However, such imperialisms are common to virtually all organized religions. When you have sacred geographies, and scriptural infallibility, you will have belief systems where the believers have to acknowledge the prominence of places and languages not their own. Hinduism is no different.

Suppose you are an old woman in a village in the far eastern part of Assam. All you have known or connected with in your life is your village community and the Brahmaputra, if it is next door. Then one day you die, and if your sons (it’s always sons, isn’t it?) can afford it, they cart your ashes to North India and immerse them in the Ganga, accompanied by hymns in a language you never knew. It is not much different from the Haj, structurally speaking, or rabbis insisting the Judaic Pentateuch can only be understood properly (that is, as Yahweh meant it to be) in Hebrew.

But when such structures cause the progressive disintegration of a society, one needs to be concerned.

Sacred stones in Meghalaya

‘Assamese society’ is a problematic term, and much hair has been split, and considerable blood spilt, because it is problematic. Broadly, it consists of people who speak Assamese as their first language. Over the centuries that this society was formed, it has been composed of Hindu caste elements and tribes. Of these, the Brahmins were said to have been descended from families out of Kanyakubja (modern Kannauj).

I will not go so far as to say that in the past this society was one long happy picnic in a still densely forested part of the world. No society has ever been like that, and in India, people never live with each other as much as near each other, in an ersatz community. But there was a semblance of fellow-feeling and not much overt falling out.

Of course there were religious influences from the rest of the country. This included appropriation of indigenous beliefs, and importing of others. The Kamakhya temple, which the scholar Banikanta Kakati concluded was built on an old sacred ground of the Garo tribal goddess ‘Kamekha’, was then fully integrated into the Puranic canon. Vaishnavism arrived in the Middle Ages, and songs were written about the ‘vrinda’ groves of far North India. This too, was inevitable.

For 600 of those years, from 1228 to 1826, and particularly for the last 250 years of this, Assamese society was under the political rule of the Ahoms, of Tai Shan extraction from northeastern Myanmar. They too were eventually Hinduised.

After the British came, however, the resulting Assamese middle class charted a course that I am deeply uncomfortable with. Finding themselves, for the first time in the history of the land, to be politically connected with the rest of India, they dug up the old gotras, the genealogies of their upper caste forebears. They looked west, seeking social legitimacy with the other middle classes of India, themselves composed of the upper castes. And in this process, there was a subterranean fracturing of Assamese society. Caste Assamese began to see themselves as different, as more connected to the great history of Indian (read Hindu) civilization than to their neighbours, the tribes.

Hindu beliefs and practices, rooted as they are in notions of ritual and genealogical purity, make it extremely difficult for truly multicultural, multiethnic social formations to emerge. Adherence to the caste system, or even the pale facsimile of it found in Assam, made it easy for caste Hindus in the 19th century to express disdain for ‘the tribal’, for ‘the hillman’, for the ‘Anarya’. These attitudes were gradually and easily internalized, until the fractures became profound.

And so the Nagas, with who Assamese society, particularly in East Assam, had such intimate connections, were estranged. So were the Garos and Khasis with West Assamese society. But that was just prologue. By the late 20th century, the Bodos asserted their difference, their separateness from Assamese society. A decade later, Misings, Tiwas and Rabhas, who speak Assamese at home, who celebrate Bihu (if a song and a dance can be the ultimate cultural identifier, which it can, in some cases), have periodically expressed intentions of going their separate way. Even the Ahoms, who gave so much to the land and its history, who created its true Golden Age, feel slighted enough to want their own space. This is unprecedented even by Indian standards.

How did Assamese society come to this? At the dawn of British rule, the emerging Assamese middle class had a choice. They could be true to their local heritage, or they could behave true to form and be what Hindu caste-based societies have mostly been: fractious, exclusivist, revisionist social formations that ignore existing realities for a mythic heritage.

Something similar happened in Manipur, although the Meiteis successfully held on to both Krishna and their local god, Pakhangba. But the Hinduisation of Manipur pushed away the tribes around them, a process worsened by the rise of the Meitei middle class during British rule. And therefore, lurking in the back of both the Meitei and Assamese mind has been the question — am I Hindu enough? And if I want to be more Hindu, what needs to be done?

So do not be surprised if the Hindu right makes even more inroads into Assamese society, and these fractures deepen. The process started a long time ago, and was waiting to happen in its current iteration. Because the imperialism inherent in Hindutva is also the imperialism inherent in similar organized religions and religion-based structures.

‘Shwaya, shwaya’: Gabriel Allon, Toynbee and Islam

As I have mentioned earlier, there have been very few espionage novels after the Cold War that can match the narrative scale or philosophical depth of what came before them. A promising exception could be Daniel Silva, who has been writing for a while. His creation, the art restorer and Mossad assassin Gabriel Allon, debuted in 2000 with ‘The Kill Artist’. A product of Israel’s 1970s Munich reprisals, Allon and the world he inhabits has evolved perceptibly in scale. In the past few years, the series has directly referred to events in the Middle-East and Europe.

In ‘The Black Widow’ (2016), a terror attack in Paris causes Allon, reluctantly in line to head the Mossad, to launch an operation. He recruits Natalie Mizrahi, a doctor born to French Jewish emigres, to masquerade as a French Muslim, Leila Hadawi, and get recruited by the Islamic State. Silva does what we have fruitlessly expected authors to do for a while, and takes the story to Raqqa, Syria, with a notable stopover at Molenbeek in Belgium, familiar to us after the attacks of 2015.

Silva falters occasionally, such as with the nom de guerre of the terror mastermind, a certain ‘Saladin’. I suppose I could write a separate post on the Silva the black widowfamiliarity of the 12th century Ayyubid general to the European consciousness. Saladin recurs as a name for Middle-Eastern characters in thrillers, notably in Stephen Hunter’s ‘The Second Saladin’ (1982). In ‘The Black Widow’, however, it strikes a false note. It is unlikely that a senior Islamic State functionary, trusted by ‘the Leader’ to boot, would go to war with the West under the name of a medieval Kurd.

Much before the scene shifts to Syria, however, while talking about the need for Israeli intervention in that country, Allon asks Natalie if she is familiar with Arnold Toynbee’s theory about history’s two pivot points — the Central Asian Oxus-Jaxartes basin, and the Syria-Palestine axis. Silva’s unsaid inference, to which I agree, is the IS, and now the post-IS Middle-East require intervention by world powers and neighbours. The degree of intervention needs, of course, to be individually determined. For Allon it is a single directed anti-terror op.

Apart from the welcome attempt at a theoretical underpinning to contemporary espionage, Silva’s choice of Toynbee, and quoted by a Mossad man, is interesting. In his multi-volume ‘A Study of History’, Toynbee examines 19 ‘major’ civilisations (incidentally, dividing Indian civilisations into ‘Indic’ and ‘Hindu’), four ‘abortive’ and an equal number of ‘arrested’ civilisations. But he also refers to ‘fossil’ societies, born of religious discrimination, classifying Judaic culture as one of them, a part of the abortive Syriac civilization. Considering the re-appraisal of Syriac culture in the intervening decades, there might be some substance to this, but in the 1950s Toynbee was suspected of anti-semitism over this classification, and it remains problematic.

But Toynbee also examined the nature of Islamic society’s reaction to the West in his time, from the late 19th century to the 1930s. In his essay, ‘Islam, the West and the Future’, published in ‘Civilisation on Trial’ (1948), he writes:

“Whenever one civilized society finds itself in this dangerous situation vis-a-vis another, there are two alternative ways open to it of responding to the challenge; and we can see obvious examples of both these types of response in the reaction of Islam to Western pressure today.”

Drawing a parallel between Jewish reaction to Roman imperialism and Islamic response to the West, Toynbee continues: “The ‘Zealot’ is the man who takes refuge from the unknown in the familiar; and when he joins battle with a stranger who practises superior tactics and employs formidable newfangled weapons, and finds himself getting the worst of the encounter, he responds by practising his own traditional art of war with abnormally scrupulous exactitude.”

The Jewish (not to mention Samaritan) response to Rome has been extensively documented, and its connection to the rise of Islam is being researched as we speak. A large part of the Western understanding of Islamic fundamentalism also revolves around the reaction theory. This, in my view, is a trifle simplistic, because it does not take into account the nature of a culture which reacts in just such a manner to the Other, and not in a different way. That is, why are some cultures more, shall we say, designed to take the zealotry option? How did Japanese society, to cite an example, accommodate its still-thriving xenophobia and ultra-nationalism with capitalism and Western dominance? These questions apart, Toynbee’s theories, a lot of which have still not been completely discarded, are a useful entrepot to understanding Islamic societies’ response to the West.

That an espionage fiction writer has made the effort to include this politico-historiographical tidbit is commendable. I expect Silva to theorise further on contemporary politics in forthcoming Allon books, of which the sequel to ‘The Black Widow’, titled ‘House of Spies’ was released this year.

Mughals in miniature: The perils of medieval reinforcements for contemporary debates

(Medieval Indian history is not my area of specialization. The only connection Mughal history has to anything I have researched in is the very tenuous Mongol heritage. What follows is not me speaking as a historian, but mainly as a political commentator)

The Mughals are back in the news, after the earlier fracas about Maharana Pratap versus Akbar. While the Right tries to erase the Mughals from history, Left-liberals have sprung to the defence of Babur’s line. I’m happy to see Audrey Truschke’s book on Aurangzeb being mentioned. A re-appraisal of Aurangzeb, and a demolition of some dearly-held myths, was long overdue, and I hope those on the Right do us the courtesy of reading it.

I am not a big admirer of the Mughals, or the way the early Mughals viewed themselves: as inheritors of Chinggis, an unfounded claim. This is not personal. The Assam campaigns of the 17th century, between us, have also been conveniently re-interpreted by the Right as a defensive war by Hindus against Muslim invaders. That the general of the Mughal land army was the Rajput Ram Singh is ignored. That the admiral (who met with a sticky end) was Munawwar Khan, quite possibly an Afghan, is doubly ignored. That among the indigenous armies who fought them were animist Nagas, too, is ignored.

Because not ignoring them would compel one to take into account the complexities of politics in the Middle Ages. The idea that the Mughals’ wars of expansion were not religious conflicts does not go too well with the Right’s version of history. It ignores the Hindus who worked very well with the Mughals. It ignores the subaltern allies of the Mughals’ opponents too, like the Bhils who supplied such excellent weapons to Maharana Pratap. We are all familiar with the dearly-held generalisations not based on actual evidence.

Mughal contribution to Indian society was immense, beginning with the administrative structure. This too, has been mentioned elsewhere. However, I am uncomfortable with the way in which the current debate is shaping up, where, to defend the Mughals from unfounded charges from the Right, we might be building them up into something they are not. Whitewashing is something both sides of the divide have been guilty of, and this time appears no different.

To begin with, Babur never intended to set himself up here, and Samarkand never lost its emotional primacy for him. Second, the true period of Mughal dominance, I believe, needs revision. The Mughal era truly begins with Akbar, and ends with the death of Aurangzeb, a total of 151 years. Of the four Great Mughals within this period, Jahangir benefited greatly from the momentum of Akbar’s reign. If he had been in a situation like Humayun, Jahangir’s career would have doubtless been different. So the contributions of Akbar, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb were what make the dynasty significant. Again, Mughal collapse after Aurangzeb was due to economic and administrative over-reach, not some great religious reprisal, which has been covered very well by late medieval specialists.

Now, if you leave apart the great architecture (a lot of which owes its influence to Central Asian forms), and paintings (derived from existing folk traditions), it is the Mughal administrative machinery that recommends this period for any student of history. This system was not created out of whole cloth by Akbar, but gradually evolved, borrowing a lot from their contemporary Iranians, and incorporating existing systems of the Turks and Afghans. So if one recommends that Mughal history be studied by school children, and it should be, these connections must also be adequately explained. No empire creates systems and structures in isolation. So while trying to defend Akbar from the Right, we are in danger of turning him and his descendants into some kind of medieval superheroes. This, too, is just as unfair as the claims of the Right.

The Mughals carved a place for themselves with technological supremacy. They were fortunate to have someone like Akbar, who realized that the only way to run a large empire in the subcontinent was to be inclusive. They lost their way because such lessons can’t be inherited, they can only be understood and internalized at an individual level.

But, overall, the Mughals were just like any other medieval dynasty, and must be studied as they were. We can’t afford to bring them in as reinforcements for a contemporary political debate. What we should be defending today are democracy (based on ideology, not birth-based majorities), freedom of speech, gender and caste equality, secularism (that is, the excising of religion from the public sphere), freedom of economic mobility, scientific temper, primacy of law and an equivalent freedom to change laws to reflect changing societies. None of these were started by the Mughals, and have nothing to do with medieval societies. We must, repeatedly, mention this. This country as it exists owes itself to a different intellectual and humanist tradition.

The Mughals must not be removed from school or college textbooks. Neither should the small nations that fought them. Nor should the Lodhis, Tughlaqs or Sayyids. Personally speaking, I would be delighted if the books also mentioned the Bhils, or, introduced, to north Indian children, the Cholas. Any move by the Right to ‘sanitise’ history must be opposed. But let us not make the Mughals into something admirable. They were absolute monarchs ruling a bountiful land, and successful at it. But they passed. I am glad they did. The society we are trying to defend, a far better one, needs other kinds of reinforcements.

Imperium Indicum, Or How India Didn’t Rule The World

Here’s my article published by Yahoo Originals on October 8:

A lot has been said against Doordarshan televising Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat’s Dussehra speech on October 3. The usual critics have questioned this perceived promotion of the Sangh’s ideology. Since every government in the past has permitted its ideologues to use the state-owned channel for broadcasts, there is no reason to oppose it now without being hypocritical. It is the sub-text of his speech, however, that shows how difficult it is for political Hinduism to appropriate Indian history to its ends.

Bhagwat’s speech was mainly a pious rehash of India’s role as guru to a fractured world, that the models followed by the West and the rest were inadequate guides for mankind (as seen, he said, in how the ISIS was created by the venality of the West). This is not a new concept: indeed, the re-moulding of India’s self-image is based on an assumption that Hinduism has the answers to the various crises that face civilizations today. To give him due credit, Bhagwat acknowledged that India has much to learn from the West, but these lessons, predictably, will be along materialistic lines. In cultural, ideological and what passes for spiritual matters, we have, we are told, to only give to other nations.

Now, it is apparent that Bhagwat is more politically astute than the Sangh leadership in the recent past, and he has very little patience for any dabbling in religious matters. We are witnessing a clear iteration of political Hinduism here, an ideology based on re-imagined and revised Indian history.

It is no coincidence that he chose to begin by invoking the spirit of the Chola emperor Rajendra (we assume the First, and not the Third, who presided over the empire’s disintegration). “The Dussehra celebrations this year are special because they mark a thousand years of the reign of Rajendra Chola, who spread Indian culture overseas, particularly in South-east Asia,” he said. Considering that Indian school history textbooks have criminally neglected South Indian history, and empire-builders from the north have been given a larger share of the national consciousness, it is refreshing to hear an eulogic mention of the Cholas.

A part of this, certainly, has to do with the Sangh’s renewed assault on the Tamil regionalist bastion. But it also has to do with political Hinduism’s search for a legitimate international empire.

Appropriation and revision of Indian history is as venerable a Sangh tradition as the Sarsanghchalak’s annual speech. Till recently, it was limited to Hindu figures seen as opponents of Islamic expansion: Shivaji, the Ranas Sangram Singh and Pratap, the Vijaynagar Empire, the Sikhs.

This has lately expanded to more obscure and reimagined ones: Gaidinliu, the 20th century Naga cult leader who the Sangh claims was a Hindu revivalist, and Emperor Hemchandra or Hemu as he is better known, who very briefly ruled from Delhi between the Sur Dynasty and the return of the Mughals in the mid-16th century. Rajendra Chola is now officially part of this second, newer narrative: culture as empire and not just as defensive action in the face of reverses. In short, let’s talk expansion now. The problem here is, historically, cultural influence has not always walked down the aisle with political supremacy, and certainly not Indian culture.

Consider, then, the Cholas. There is much to be learnt from them, because they oversaw India’s only overseas expansion. Between the 9th and the 11th centuries, Chola naval might extended to the Maldives, northern Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Strait of Molucca.

However, this expansion cannot be seen merely through the conventional prism of political control. Most Chola campaigns in South-east Asia involved the capture and control of seaports and harbours, and not of imperial rule further inland. Successful medieval monarchs, regardless of which part of the world you might look at, were more pragmatic than we might give them credit for, and the Cholas were extraordinarily prescient in understanding the nature of the Indian Ocean trade routes, such as the choke-point at Molucca for all China-bound shipping. Controlling the Strait of Molucca, between south-western Malaysia and north-eastern Sumatra was the key to gaining from the sea trade to China.

Bhagwat’s reference to the Cholas was as prologue to what he sees as India’s natural role as guiding light to the world. This conflation of political dominance with cultural influence, impressive as it sounds, is clearly not the case with the Cholas. For Indic civilization had already been internalized in South-East Asia by then.

Here’s an instance: in 1025, the Khmer Empire in today’s Cambodia asked the Cholas for help against the Tambralinga kingdom in Malaysia, and their allies the Srivijaya city-state of today’s Sumatra. These are not merely Indic-sounding names: the Khmers were Shaivites, as were the Cholas, while their enemies were Mahayana Buddhists, although this was an incidental cause to a mainly economic conflict. Southeast Asia had thoroughly internalized Indian culture, language and religious systems for nearly seven hundred years by then. The extent of cultural and diplomatic relationships these kingdoms and empires inherited is impressive by any standard: the Srivijayans had even financed a monastery or two at Nalanda, which was under the Palas.

A lot of India’s overseas influence in these maritime civilizations was because of Tamil seamanship and mercantile influence in the centuries preceding the rise of the Cholas. For their part, Rajendra Chola’s dynasty encouraged the increased sophistication of Tamil merchant guilds like the Ayyavole. One wishes these achievements were mentioned more in our school textbooks.

In short, the Cholas did not market Indian culture to South-East Asia, nor did they bring a form ofpax Indica on the back of their impressive blue-water navies. To conflate political expansion with cultural influence is, for one, to ignore South India’s role in the preceding centuries in spreading Indian culture overseas through non-military means.

Equally important, this re-imagined correlation between “soft” and “hard” power is more applicable to Western colonial interventions or, even more accurately, to Islamic expansion. In the colonial period, naval or land-based supremacy went in conjunction with culture, political systems and commerce. Islamic expansion, meanwhile, was predicated on the nature of the religion itself, where political supremacy was – and is – intimately connected with faith and all the cultural values of peninsular Arabia.

India’s cultural legacy, or what little of it remains in South-east Asia, does not work that way. Nor should it. Chola campaigns had only marginal long-term impact even next door, in Sri Lanka, where Sinhalese Buddhism became a rallying point and a political force afterwards, or in the Maldives, whose Buddhist traditions would soon be subsumed to Islam. It was only in places where Indic culture was most strongly internalized before the Cholas that Hinduism or Buddhism survived against Islam, such as in Thailand or Cambodia, while Srivijayan Buddhist Sumatra is just a trace of memory.

By attempting to connect Indian culture with the subcontinent’s only successful naval expansion project, of course, Bhagwat was trying to add to the discourse emerging today, trying to add a patina of conquest to the traditional received wisdom of Indian cultural superiority. After all, cultural lessons are great as heritage; they must certainly be better if they are seen to be accompanied by real might, real navies, exciting stories of conquest. The reduction of Indian culture’s presence in the region by seven hundred years seems a trivial trade-off.

So, why be concerned about a nifty bit of historical revisionism? Indian ideologues from the Left and the Right do it all the time, after all. But it is of importance. The idea of culture-as-empire is a heady narcotic, particularly today when Indians seek to define their country’s role in terms and analogies borrowed from other systems and structures. It is no coincidence that political Hinduism’s attempt at homogenizing the multiple strands of Indian culture or religious texts into a single acceptable narrative mirrors the limited horizons of Islamic polity. The difference is, Islamic polity has always been constrained by its religious limitations and predatory instincts. Indic cultural traditions have not.

A lot of talk has been expended on India’s soft power today and Bollywood’s dubious increased reach in the West. Leaving apart the few takers for the exotic and the unusual, or the intrepid seekers of a romantic transcendence in mysterious India, the question of this country’s relevance to the rest of the world needs to be answered by meeting the world on mutually understandable terms, through universal languages like commerce, science and literature.

Seeking Indian cultural glory through empire, or re-imagining Indian history through modern notions is, therefore, a contradictory task. On the one hand, ideologues run the risk of politicizing a way of life that has been resolutely apolitical for most of its history. For another, as seen in the Chola example, we might end up ignoring the far deeper roots of India in the neighbourhood, roots that were spread long before empires contested over them.