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Against Communalising History

D. N. Jha

Professor of History,

University of Delhi

General President's Address
Punjab History Conference, 31st Session
19-21 March 1999

I am extremely grateful to the organisers of the Punjab History Conference (founded by the late lamented Sardar Ganda Singh whose affection I was fortunate enough to get in the initial phase of my teaching career) for electing me General President of its thirty-first session, even though my own researches do not specifically relate to the history of the Punjab. I treat this honour as an encouragement to one who is interested in the broader issues of Indian history and is concerned with the problem of integrating regional histories into the history of India. I, therefore, propose to draw your attention to some of the issues which have considerable bearing on efforts to reconstruct the past of the Punjab as a cultural region and not of the Punjab which was the product of the Radcliff's award. In doing so I would like to argue that the north western part of the subcontinent generally and the Punjab region particularly have been the meeting ground of many faiths and have played a crucial role in promoting religious syncretism, and communal harmony which is the greatest need of our times.

Regional historiography cannot overlook the achievements of the region. Therefore, when one talks of the Punjab one naturally speaks of its ancient glory. Its association with the first urban civilisation and subsequently with the early Vedic Aryans gives us an idea of its antiquity. Panini, believed to have been born at Salatura near Lahore and later described as bhagavan by his commentator Patanjali, tends to strengthen Punjab's claim to have produced one of the most respected intellectual luminaries--a claim further supported by the prolonged efflorescence of Taksashila (Taxila) as one of the most prestigious centres of learning in the ancient world and by the strong possibility of Alberuni meeting erudite scholars in the Punjab beyond which probably he did not go into the interior of India. Reference to this region (Shripada Janapada) by Bana as the kingdom of Indra gives it some kind of divine association just as his somewhat detailed description of it portrays it as a land of plenty and beauty. The sacrifices made by numerous heroes from ancient to modern times can easily be woven into a tale of valour and bravery. The peculiar geographical position of the Punjab made it a zone of interaction among a number of peoples in ancient and medieval times, and nurtured several mystic movements which were conducive to the growth of a composite culture, so prominently reflected in the teachings of Jagatguru Nanak who stood for an egalitarian society. All this and many other developments give a legitimate amour propre to the people of the Punjab and the northwestern part of the subcontinent. But historians working on the Punjab region may tend to go in a dangerous direction when they glorify its past without adequate emphasis on the fact that the cultural heritage of one region belongs equally to the other parts of the country just as the past of other regions of India is inextricably linked with the history of the Punjab. By laying an undue emphasis on its achievements and by ignoring those of the rest of the country regional historiography will weaken the nation state which is already being considerably eroded by the almost irreversible process of globalisation. It must of be stressed that historians have to reconstruct the past without regional chauvinism and religious fanaticism so as to save the country from fragmentation.

Chauvinism has its first cousin in communalism. Its pernicious influence on the reconstruction of Indian history, first seen in colonial historiography, has assumed alarming dimensions in recent years. We are all familiar with the shameful events at Ayodhya followed by macabre consequences, and with the agenda of 'liberating' Mathura and Kashi in Uttar Pradesh and Bababudangiri in Karnataka. One should not be surprised if the list of sites to be 'liberated' is enlarged in the near future and our past is distorted beyond recognition to provide legitimacy to communal vandalism. In fact, for the Punjab region itself a history with communal overtone is already being written. Some archaeologists thus have been contesting the view that the Aryans came to India from outside and think that they originally lived in the valley of the river Sarasvati which finds frequent mention in the Vedic texts. They also assert that the Aryans were the authors of what is known as the Indus civilisation. For example, a VHP protagonist and an archaeologist of sorts, has proclaimed that the Harappan culture was the gift of both the Indus and the Sarasvati and 'perhaps more of the latter'. Since he habitually thinks in terms of India vs Pakistan and Sarasvati vs Indus, he unduly emphasises that there are 700 Harappan sites on the Sarasvati as compared to 100 sites on the Indus and, on this basis, seeks to rename the civilisation. The factitiousness of such a comparison, however, becomes evident if one takes into account other aspects of the problem. The Sarasvati is identified with Ghaggar in Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan and with Hakra in Pakistan beyond the Indian frontier and the Hakra-Ghaggar is a tributary of the Indus. None of the major Harappan sites like Harappa, Mohenjodaro and Dholavira is located on the Hakra or Ghaggar. According to R.C. Thakran, who has conducted extensive surveys in Haryana and the neighbouring areas, there is no evidence of Harappan culture in Ambala and Sirsa districts where the Ghaggar is an important river. Similar exercise undertaken by M. Rafique Mughal attests to the existence of much larger number of mature Harappan sites and strikingly smaller number of late/ or post-Harappan sites in the Cholistan desert (Bahawalpur) in Pakistan. Thus far more urban sites appear on the Pakistani Sarasvati than on the Indian Sarasvati. But the effort to rename the civilisation of the Indus valley after the lost and elusive Vedic Sarasvati is going on unabated so as to establish the superiority of the Sarasvati over the Indus and is thus adding a communal dimension to the Harappan and Vedic studies as also to the history of the Punjab. All this, of course, has the blessings of B.B. Lal, who is responsible for giving a distinctly right-wing shift to Indian archaeology. The situation unmistakably reminds us of the political abuse of archaeology in Nazi Germany where Hitler and his National Socialist Party's ideologue Alfred Rosenberg drew much inspiration from the archaeologist Gustaf Kossinna who laid the foundations of an ethnocentric German prehistory.

An extremely ugly face of communalism is also seen in the ongoing unsavoury controversy centring round what has been described as 'forced' mass religious conversions. The Hindutva forces, in their bid to aggravate religious conflicts in the country, argue that Hindus were forcibly converted to Islam and Christianity in the past and therefore they have to be reconverted so as to take them back into the Hindu fold. But such an assertion has no basis in our history. There is, for example, hardly any evidence to suggest that the early Aryans who came to the north western India and subsequently moved eastwards forcibly imposed Vedic religious practices on the autochthonous elements even though they fought intertribal and intratribal wars. On the contrary there are indications in the Rigveda that the Aryan and the pre/ non- Aryan groups in the Land of the Seven Rivers were gradually absorbed by the Vedic people often through the process of assimilation and not confrontation. Divodasa, and his son Sudas, who was the chief of the Bharata tribe, seem to have had a non-Aryan origin as their name-endings suggest. The garbled version of the origin of Vasishtha and Agastya, the founders of two of the earliest brahmana gotras, points to their non-Aryan background. Some Dasa chiefs (e.g., Balbhuta and Taruksha) made generous gifts to priests and earned their unstinted praise and there is nothing to show that the Vedic religious practices were forcibly imposed on them. Contrary to common belief, not all dasas were subjugated by force and won over to the Vedic socio-religious fold. Even the evolution of Krishna (= black, and therefore different from the 'fairskinned' Aryans) from one of the Rigvedic seers to the dark Hindu god and an incarnation of Vishnu, is a clear example of religious syncretism and not of any conflict of faiths and forced transmogrification of a non- Aryan into a god. Buddhism and Jainism, a reaction to Vedic ritualism, initially drew a large number of merchants and traders into their fold not because of the use of force but mainly on account of their relevance to the changing social milieu --- it would indeed be outrageous to argue that the Buddhist missionaries resorted to violence in their propagation of the principle of non-violence in the country and outside. Several rulers of non-Indian origin embraced Indian religions voluntarily and, it would be puerile to suggest, even by implication, that they did so under duress. The Indo-Greek king Menander (=Milinda), who had his capital at Shakala (modern Sialkot in Lahore division) became a Buddhist after a dialogue with Nagasena. Kanishka, who controlled most parts of north and north western India (including the Punjab region) adopted the religion of the Buddha and one of his successors Vasudeva took to Vaishnavism, not to mention the case of the Greek ambassador Heliodorus who set up a pillar at Vidisa in Madhya Pradesh. The Huna king Toramana had Vashnavite association but was converted to Jainism and his tyrant son Mihirakula, ruling from Sialkot (which still houses many shrines including that of Guru Nanak), was a devout Shaiva who founded the temple of Mihireshvara. He persecuted the Buddhists as was later done by Shashanka, a fanatic ruler of Bengal. But there is nothing to show that in their use of force they were motivated by any enthusiasm for mass religious conversion. In fact, early Indian history provides ample evidence of the spread of religious ideas through peaceful interaction. The exponents of the brahmanical and non- brahmanical sects certainly propagated their own religious ideas and practices in the areas where they were given donations of land and villages but, at the same time, appropriated the tribal cults and deities resulting in a demographic explosion in the world of divinity during early medieval times. It is well known that the Tantric religion, with its conspicuous tribal background, had a pervasive influence on brahmanical religions as well as various other strands of Indian religious thought such as Buddhism which had a substantial following in the north western part of the subcontinent. An analysis of religious developments in India will show that 'Hinduism' has always been an aggregate of diverse sects, beliefs and religious practices --- a fact which is also largely true of other Indian religions like Buddhism and Jainism both of which split into several sects in course of time. But vigorous effort has been and is being made to project 'Hinduism' as a monolithic religion which amounts to its 'syndicalisation' and to bringing it into direct confrontation with Islam and Christianity. That is why conversions to these religions in the past have been very often viewed by communalists as carried out under force thus giving rise to the erroneous view that Muslims came to India with sword in one hand and the Quran in the other.

The idea that the Muslims were destroyers of 'Hindu' temples and that they converted 'Hindus' to Islam by force is extremely tendentious and is largely unfounded. Several scholars have drawn our attention to the substantial literary and epigraphic evidence of the presence of the followers of Islam in India from soon after the time of the Prophet and we have reasons to believe that there was peaceful Muslim presence in different parts of the country including Kashmir and the Punjab from the beginning of the Islamic history. Legend has it that Abu'r- Rida Ratan, a Hindu convert who died in 1243 and was buried in Bhatinda, "claimed shortly after 1200 that he had heard of the Prophet at the age of sixteen, had gone to Medina, fought together with him, and was granted longevity by his blessings so that he now, after 600 years, was able to transmit authentic hadith". Historically speaking, however, the advent of Islam began in India with the conquest of Sind in 711-12 by Muhammad ibn al- Qasim who came to the Indus region to avenge some Muslim women fallen into the hands of pirates. The Chachanama, which provides a detailed account of the conquest, gives the impression that the largely Buddhist indigenous population, being dissatisfied with the local brahmana ruler Dahir, facilitated his defeat and embraced Islam. The use of force in this conversion was neither necessary nor possible as is evident from the account of Alberuni. The possibility of a forced mass conversion is, in fact, contradicted by Muhammad ibn Qasim himself who, according to Baladhuri, is believed to have said: "The temples shall be unto us like the churches of the Christians, the synagogues of the Jews, and the fire temples of the Magians." It would appear, therefore, that the mass conversion of the indigenous Indian population in the Punjab, Sind and other parts of north western India, as also elsewhere in the subcontinent, owes perhaps very little to the use of force. On the contrary it owes a great deal to the preachings of the mystic and Sufi saints like al-Hallaj (who visited Sind in 905), Shaikh Muhammad Isma'il al- Bukhari al- Lahori (who reached Lahore before the Ghaznawid conquest), Baba Farid and so on. In Kashmir, the Sufi mystics like Nuruddin, whose order, interestingly, came to be called by the Sanskritic name Rishi silsila, played a very important role in the dissemination of Islamic beliefs and practices. The Sufi mystics not only preached their ideas among the people but often showed utmost respect for the various pre-existing religious beliefs, and in the Punjab, we are told, at least four of the major Sufi orders (Chisti, Suhrawardi, Qadiri and the Naqshbandi) "reached the meridian of their glory", evidently not on account of the use of force but mainly because of their ability to adjust to the local environment and accommodate the religious ideas of the people with whom they interacted. The continuation of the tradition of peaceful interaction and religious syncretism in the Punjab is supported by the widely accepted early Sikh tradition that Mian Mir of Lahore was associated with the foundation of the Harmandir Sahib at the request of Guru Arjun as well as by the fact that the compositions of Baba Farid, Trilochana, Namdev, Sadhna, Beni, Ramananda, Kabir, Dhanna, Suradas and so on were enshrined in the Guru Granth Sahib. The Muslim mystics, like the bhakti saints, contributed substantially to the contemporary popular literature, and, at least in Bengal, more than a hundred Muslim saints are known to have composed Vaishnava devotional songs. Their success in converting people to Islam on a large scale in the Punjab and the neighbouring areas as well in other regions like eastern Bengal also owed much to the weaknesses of the caste-ridden brahmanical society which denied all privileges to the untouchables, artisans and other weaker sections of society, though the extent to which the socio-economic position of the converts improved after embracing Islam remains largely a matter of speculation.

The process of conversion to Islam was a long drawn process of interaction between it and other Indian religions --- a view stressed by scholars long ago. This is also largely true of Christianity, which, despite the derogatory Evangelical references to Indian religions, has been practised on considerable scale in India for nearly two thousand years. The first convert to Christianity on the Indian subcontinent was the Indo- Parthian king Gondophernes who, according to an inscription at Takht-i-Bhai (near Peshawar), ruled for at least twenty-six years (AD 19-45) over Arachosia, Kabul and Gandhara (modern Afghanistan and Pakistan). His association with Saint Thomas, who founded the Syrian Christian church in Malabar and later met his martyrdom under the king of Mylapore (Chennai), is well known. The good work done by the Christian missionaries from the sixteenth century onwards in the field of education and health care has influenced substantial number of educated Indians, though the followers of Christianity in contemporary India are mainly from the Dalits and the tribal people and form about 2.5 per cent of the total Indian population. The assimilation of Christian ideas by Indian religions cannot be ruled out; for certain Vaishnava legends, especially those relating to the infant Krishna, are believed by some to bear resemblance to those of Christianity. Many prominent Indians (e.g., Mahatma Gandhi) have been influenced by Christian ethical ideas particularly the Sermon on the Mount. The Christian impact on contemporary Indian urban life is most conspicuous in the joie de vivre noticeable on the days of Christmas and St. Valentine. Obviously, all this is not indicative of the use of force in spreading Christian beliefs and practices. Needless to say then that whether it is the question of Islam or of Christianity, the process of conversion to both the religions has to be studied by serious historians as part of the socio-cultural history of the different regions of the country without, of course, joining the dubious communalist call for the 'national debate' on conversions/ reconversions ---- a debate which is only intended to implement the VHP's 'Hindu agenda' and camouflage the real problems facing the vast masses of the country. Religious history of India or any of its regions like the Punjab can be most meaningfully and fruitfully studied within the framework of the historical process of social change and its material underpinnings and not within the paradigm of rigid religious dichotomies which are most certainly detrimental to the integrity of the nation. But such an exercise is possible only if professional historians not only jettison the communal historiographical baggage moronically carried by the obscurantist elements but also set their own agenda for rational and scientific enquiry giving priority to such problems as the emergence of state societies in the north-west, social role of religion, influence of ecology on historical developments and the interaction of the plains with the hilly areas in different spheres of life, etc. In this context scholars working on the history of Punjab and the neighbouring states have a special responsibility to discharge because the formation and development of Indian tradition and culture owes a great deal to this region.

I thank you all for giving me an opportunity to share some of my ideas with you.

D. N. Jha

Professor of History

University of Delhi

Last modified: Mon Dec 19 10:41:03 2011

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