An article I read recently commented on the words used to describe a rainbow in various Indian languages. The article forced me to ponder on Sanskritic hegemony that continues to affect our culture. Similarly startling revelations await those who seek to gauge the discourse around Indian history today. Any observer will raise concerns about the narrow focus of these discussions.
The history taught to us is limited in its scope. We are made to believe that Mauryan and Mughal periods epitomised the greatness of the Indian civilization. While these notions are untrue because they seek to judge history, it is also important to note the exclusion of the history of the Southern and North-Eastern parts of India. Our textbooks are committed to providing us with information on the empires of Akbar and Asoka. Rarely do they touch upon the Satvahanas, the Vakatakas or the Ahoms. We read at length about the Revolt of 1857 but few have recollections of the Vellore Revolt of 1806. We read about the foreign policy of the Mughals. However, little attention is paid to the foreign interactions of the Vijayanagara rulers. Nehru and Gandhi’s refusal to join the Allied forces is reminisced upon constantly but the story of the North-Eastern contribution to the Indian National Army lies in obscurity. Popular monuments in cities like Delhi and Mumbai are thronged by visitors while the cities of Hampi and Badami have been reduced to rubble. In the popular imagination, the history of these corners of India is restricted to a few lines. Why do our textbooks continue to ignore these histories?
Many believe that scarcity of evidence is the primary reason behind the abandonment of South India’s history. Is evidence, however, the only determining factor? No. Considerable emphasis is laid on the history of the Mauryan Empire despite scarce and often manipulated evidence. On the other hand, excavations and research has yielded enough evidence to reconstruct the past of other important ruling dynasties and historical processes in South India. Historians like K. A Nilakanta Shastri have worked on this subject in the past but have not been able to analyse processes without emphasis on the role of North India.
While it is difficult to discern the reason behind the constant neglect of South Indian histories, it is easy to understand that the little attention paid to the history of North-East India is a product of colonial construction. Colonial authorities in their bid to isolate the North East unfairly labelled their histories as backward and barbaric. New departments sought to manipulate and alter verifiable sources. Furthermore, the appointment of ethnographer Verrier Elwin to the post of ‘anthropological adviser to the government of present day Arunachal Pradesh’ and an advisor on tribal affairs continued to sustain colonial influences and biases in the viewing of these histories even after Independence. Sources to study these histories were largely inaccessible to historians from the rest of the country.
Why is it important to study the history of these regions though? The history of India is a broad amalgamation of the stories of different parts of the country. Examination of these strands of the past can help us better understand complex historical processes. To gain an understanding of the Bhakti Movement it is equally important to study both Sufism and the sects of the Alvars and Nayanars. These explorations also help us avoid gross generalisations. To understand the state of women in ancient India for example, historians must consider Brahamanical texts as well as Sangam literature. These studies help us understand historical processes of globalisation. The Satavahanas were pioneers of Indo- Roman trade. Our knowledge of the past is expanded and these histories often resist dominant norms and are hence sources of historical dissent. Most essentially however, these histories need to be studied because they continue to shape the identity of these peoples. To understand the diversity that continues to be inherent to this land, we need to first explore, examine and understand the past.