Use Science, not Ideology, to Correct Historiography

Use Science, not Ideology, to Correct Historiography

India must pursue knowledge of its past for the sake of it and not to push any agenda. It must remove the ideological bias that exists against putting resources into any indigenist issues. But to repeat the mistake of ideological imposition would be disappointing.

Indians belong to a land with a long tortured history that recedes into an unclear antiquity.

For us, history is most emphatically not in the past; it sits in front of us regarding us with a beady eye and changing shape even as we look at it. It is bitterly fought over, every inch of it.

The imperialists, the Marxists, the nationalists, the subalterns, the feminists wrestle over it in an increasingly public arena. Academic disputes are, or should be, confined to academia, but today they have spilt over into the street, in popular discourse, on social media and a cacophonous and continuous political argument that obfuscates many real issues.

And what about the average person, not an academic, not a politician, but the person for whose benefit presumably history is studied? What plagues the study of history in India? Is ideology the only problem?

Use Science, not Ideology, to Correct Historiography

For most of the past 250 years, as a ‘colonial’ object, the history of the country was subjected to the indignity of constructed narratives forced into pre-conceived ideas and buffeted by differing political streams in the dominating countries of western Europe.

The Marxists burst on to the scene with their purported critique of the imperialist viewpoint, which was later challenged by its own offspring, the subaltern stream of history. Feminist critiques have also been attempted. In the context of the fight with the British, the nationalist stream of historians worked hard to establish opposing narratives of exploitation and dispossession.

After 1947, however, the situation changed. Nehru and his ‘secular’, deracinated army of Marxist academics slowly captured most of the historiographical space leaving no room for any other interpretation or understanding.

Nationalism was equated to evil ‘Hindutva’ and banished from the ‘liberal’ consciousness; scholarship was only of the Left variety, the rest was laughable at best and villainous at worst.

All other viewpoints were systematically choked of resources, leaving them to fend for themselves; opponents were ignored or vilified. Take the example of K.D. Sethna or Shrikant Talageri or B.B. Lal.

India, however, is the land of perpetual histories that live more outside formal structures than inside them. The indigenous concepts of history did not die out and, no matter how hard they tried, the Nehruvian army could not stamp out their ‘enemy’.

Forgive this writer if all this sounds melodramatic, but that was more or less how it was. In the last three decades, beginning with the fightback in the 1980s sparked off by the Ram Mandir movement, attempts have been made to challenge the stranglehold of the Marxists with indifferent success at least in formal academic circles.

The grip of the Marxists is still strong on academia and the weakened uprooted Left continues to punch above its weight even today when it is politically emasculated.

This has inspired a backlash from the right―both the liberal and the hard right. With the landslide win of the BJP in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, there is a feeling that it is now payback time. All kinds of ‘facts’ and ‘theories’ have proliferated with varying degrees of evidence to back them. Given this atmosphere, there is acceptance of ‘rightist’ theories, no matter how outlandish.

This writer is not one of the people filled with infinite contempt for ‘Tejo Mahalya’ kind of theories. I am a firm believer in taking any statement and putting it to the test of cold, hard evidence, if indeed such an animal exists in historiography. Debunking or accepting claims on the basis of evidence is the only way to maintain any semblance of understanding.

This is is the way out of this tangle of claims, counterclaims and resulting confusion. All the evidence should be placed before the public, leaving the conclusions to be supported or otherwise on the weight of that evidence.

Let me explain with the help of an illustration; let us consider the example of a burning topic in Indian history―that of the origin of Vedic culture. Were the ‘Aryans’ invaders from outside who brought in a new and civilising impulse from somewhere else, or were they original inhabitants of India? The Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT) vs the Indigenous Aryan Theory (IAT)!

Parts in the Rigveda are used in support of the Aryan Invasion Theory.
Parts in the Rigveda are used in support of the Aryan Invasion Theory.

It is one of the foundation stones of ancient Indian history and has attracted the attention of many scholars over the past 150 years. When Sanskrit was ‘discovered’ by Europeans and its connections to classical European languages understood, it started off the search for the ‘Indo- European’.

After initially positioning India as the home of the Indo European, various arguments were raised against it to finally arrive at the concept of the invading Indo-Aryans who then mixed with the indigenous Indians.  In contrast is the theory which posits that Indo-Aryans were indigenous and spread outwards from India to other parts of the world including Europe.

In India, the first theory has been associated with Marxist historians and the second with nationalists or what is popularly understood as the RSS or Hindutva brand of politics.

Is this a fruitful attitude helping us to understand a period which is very far off in the past and where evidence, if any, is thin on the ground?

The AIT―and its revision, the Aryan Migration Theory―is a completely European reconstruction of Indian history dismissing Indian voices, which was the result of the prevailing political and academic currents of the time.

It has hidden in it appalling elements of racism, religious Christian ideas (the idea of a common homeland in any case is based on the idea of the Christian Tower of Babel), twisting/over-interpreting of evidence to suit the theory (especially passages from the Rig Veda describing so called dark-skinned dasas subjugated by the white skinned Aryans) and generally refusing to consider any evidence that does not suit its thesis.

In the light of emerging evidence consistently failing to support the idea of  white skinned ‘Aryans’ thundering down the passes of the north-west in their chariots and conquering the dark skinned ‘Dravidians’, a small concession was made by the Marxists who have bought the AIT theory lock, stock and barrel. The Aryans perhaps had not invaded and conquered by force but through waves of ‘migration’and ‘inter-mixture’ with the local ‘Dravidians’, they now claim. This is disingenuous; as with ‘conquest’, there is no evidence of any large-scale ‘migration’ in the last 5,000 years either. In actual fact, the female population in India is most likely to have been a part of the original exodus from Africa 60,000 years ago. Most of the Indian male population can trace its origins in India to at least 20,000 years ago (conclusions are from an analysis of data from the Genographic Project of the National Geographic).

In more contemporary times, the Aryan invasion theorists suffer from what Edwin Bryant (author of a brilliant book on this issue, The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture, his doctoral thesis for Columbia University, where details of the argument I am considering may be found)) calls a kind of intellectual McCarthyism; brand any opposition of the AIT theory as based on Hindutva , intellectually tar and feather the proponent and the evidence automatically stands discredited! What explains the refusal, for instance, to consider palaeo-genetic and palaeo-geographical data that shed useful light on proto-historic international migration?

The Indigenous Aryan brand of history suffers from a high decibel level but low levels of actual hard work and evidence. It is not enough to assert a point of view; if it opposes the mainstream view, it must give cogent reasons for this. Has enough hard work been done on this aspect? The poor research quality of much of indigenist writing does not help it to be taken seriously.

In practice, branding all indigenist literature with the same brush and ignoring the entire body of  work  has not made the point of view go away; it has strengthened it. The refusal to address the actual issues it raises has undermined the credibility of the Marxist historians, too.

However, is the problem not at another level? Why is it that most of the cutting edge research and accepted seminal works are done in universities outside India? Why are some disciplines such as linguistics, critical to evidential analysis of this area, so poor in our country that Indian scholars do not even have access to contemporary works on it, leave alone the ability to critique these works?

Shrikant Talageri is almost a lone voice in the wilderness, simultaneously ignored and tarred for being a nationalist. Why is cutting edge work on genetic evidence for complex migration and re-migration patterns into and out of India also being done outside the country?

If much of the genetic evidence (based on an analysis of the F haplogroup which, along with its lines of descent, accounts for 90 per cent of the male population in the world) seems to suggest that much of the globe outside Africa was settled by outward migrations from South Asia dating back to over 50,000 years ago, why is this not being studied in India?

Why it is that most of the leading figures in the area of Indology are not Indians but those outside? Should the University of Chicago really be a battlefield for Sanatana Dharma?

Does noise substitute for research?

And what should be the stand of the government―that elephant in the research room in India? Should it now push rightist theories to compensate for the pushing of Marxist view of history?

This is not a very useful way of going forward. India must pursue knowledge of its past for the sake of it and not to push any agenda. It must, of course, remove the ideological bias that exists against putting resources into any indigenist issues; for instance, the bias against pursuing work on identifying the lost Saraswati River. But to repeat the same mistake of ideological imposition would be disappointing.

Can we build institutions, encourage research in English as well as Indian languages, inspire young people to study history and inject science and technology into archaeology to solve some of the riddles plaguing Indian history?

Can we pour resources and common sense into the pursuit of history, please?


After two decades in the Indian Revenue Service Sumedha Verma Ojha now follows her passion, Ancient India; writing and speaking across the world on ancient Indian history, society, women, religion and the epics. Her Mauryan series is ‘Urnabhih’; a Valmiki Ramayan in English and a book on the ‘modern’ women of ancient India will be out soon.


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