Do We Need A 'Nationalist' Narrative For India's Past?

by Aravindan Neelakandan - Jun 10, 2022 06:28 PM +05:30 IST
Do We Need A 'Nationalist' Narrative For India's Past?Dr. Dilip K. Chakrabarti's latest, 'Towards a Nationalist Narrative of India’s Ancient Past'
Snapshot
  • Dr. Dilip Chakrabarti, in his latest book, demands that Indian historians and archaeologists come together and reconstruct Indian history, based on facts.

    It is this holistic approach that he calls ‘a nationalist narrative’ of India’s ancient past.

Towards a Nationalist Narrative of India’s Ancient Past. Dr. Dilip K. Chakrabarti. Aryan Books International. 250 pages. Rs 679.

What can be a nationalist narrative to archaeology and ancient history of India? Is such an approach even desirable?a Has not the world seen enough damage because of 'nationalist-oriented' historiography?

Any mention of nationalism in the context of archaeology naturally makes an educated person recall the Nazi fascination for archaeology to study the palatably false ‘Aryan’ heritage. In the Indian context, does nationalist approach to archaeology mean a similar exercise, with fantasies of discovering or validating a 'vast Vedic empire'?

It is with these questions that one picks up a book titled Towards a Nationalist Narrative of India’s Ancient Past.

The author of the book is a veteran archaeologist, Dr. Dilip K. Chakrabarti. He is also one of the best scholars in the field today. His earlier works have taken a rigorous academic approach towards the subject.

So, why is such a scholar writing a book about any ‘nationalist narrative’?

There are two peculiar situations in India.

One is that despite being a strong civilisational nation, Indian historiography is still colonial; so much so that the Left in India follows the Western Rightwing-colonial conceptualisation of the country.

The second peculiarity is that Indian nationalism is in itself different from Western nation-state nationalism. Here, pluralism is the very basis.

So, serious nationalist approach to historiography in India is actually more tuned towards data and hard facts than chauvinism and fantasy.

Further, in India, there is also another divide. Historiography is more theory-based. Archaeology cannot be but facts-based. Those who write history with political vested interests often distort or even do not take into consideration archaeological facts. There is a kind of division between the sophisticated professors of history who look down upon archaeologists who dig the sand and work in the soil.

It is in this context that Dr. Chakrabarti demands that Indian historians and archaeologists come together and reconstruct Indian history, based on facts. It is this holistic approach that he calls as ‘a nationalist narrative’ of India’s ancient past.

The author leads by example.

In the scholarly introduction, he brings out the lesser-known facts of how the socialist leader Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia identified the problem that plagues Indian historiography. Commenting in the Parliament about the UNESCO volume titled Prehistory and the Beginnings of Civilization, which had a section on the Indus valley civilisation, he criticised the historians in the Parliament:

Historians both Indian and foreign are such rotten headed people. It is ingrained into the minds of our children that Indian had nothing of its own; everything was either imitated or influenced by outside factors. These historians can go to absurd lengths. In the book there is mention about another book called 'Five Thousand years of Pakistan'.

Yet, despite the realisation of ‘the importance of re-writing Indian history or offering an Indian narrative of Indian history’ by Indian Government as early as 1966, the denial of a civilisational continuity to India, was perpetuated by the dominant theoretical historians.

As against that, in this book, Dr. Chakrabarti shows that all evidence from archaeological studies point to the contrary. It is hard to overemphasize the importance of data contained in each of the pages of the 220 odd pages of this book.

He shows how Euro-centrism distorted Indian historiography at each and every step of its growth. He also shows how everywhere certain myths have served in forging modern political identities and how there has always been an overarching framework of identity-building in Western archaeology.

In the case of Indian archaeology, however, the opposite happens.

The author gives two instances – one of excavation at ‘Pattanam’ at Kerala and another at Keeladi. By an interesting coincidence, the present reviewer had gone to both the sites – to the first with eminent archaeologists R. Nagaswamy and T. Satyamurti and to Keeladi for writing a feature in Swarajya.

In the former, there was a vested interest of giving credence to the St. Thomas myth and in the latter, to a palatably false separate Tamil identity.

The book also deals with the recent ancient DNA studies at Indus Valley civilszational sites and also the various studies on the paleo-channels. What is his own conclusion? He is quite cautious:

Although scholars have published extensively on the Sarasvati system and reached various technical solutions, … the foregoing paper by Rajiv Sinha, Ajit Singh and Irfan Khan has a special importance because of its historical implications. That a network of monsoon-fed system came to replace the once-mighty Sarasvati river network by the time the Harappan civilization was in its mature form and the subsequent onset of aridity generated the modern landscape of the area fits in with what I see and perceive in the landscape of Harappan spread in Rajasthan, Punjab and Haryana. … The only problem that one sees here is the description of a full-flowing stream in the Rig Veda. According to the publication the river avulsed around 8000 ka, roughly 6050 BC, and it is probable that the particular portion of the Rig Veda which deals with the Saraswati dates either from a period a little earlier than the avulsion or from somewhat later in the 6th millennium BC.

One can understand how painstakingly the author has gone through each and every report and has simply laid bare the facts which speak of a civilisational continuity.

And it is for this clear presence of civilisational continuity attested in archaeological records throughout the geography of the larger Indian land mass that Dr. Chakrabarti is fighting.

Do We Need A 'Nationalist' Narrative For India's Past?

And he is fighting for thousands of years of civilisational continuity against a hundred years of colonialism in Indian historiography.

A good example of the latter is given by the author himself in describing the way, John Kay, a British historian, ‘sponsored to write a book on the early history of Indian archeology by the Archeological Survey of India and National Cultural Fund’, had written about Harappan religion which he had concluded as having nothing to do with Hindu religion.

What is the politics of Harappan studies that makes it so controversial? Dr Chakrabarti writes:

The basic politics of the Harappan studies … is to de-link this civilizational tradition from the main tree trunk of the present Indian culture. Whatever form it may take, this is an anti-national attitude, and it is interesting that a good many Indians have not hesitated to adapt this attitude.

But what is the reality? He explains:

The archeology column beginning around 7000 BC … has become clear only within the last three or four years. The sequence right up to the end of the second millennium BC is clear and there is absolutely no significant sign of influx of new people in the archeology column. … On the literary side whatever may be the date of the Rig Veda and the successive phases of the Vedic literature, the latter taking us close to the period of Buddha, this has to be accommodated between the dates suggested by the archeological column. … There is no way we can deny that the column of the tradition that emerged as the Harrapan tradition in the end is anything but the column of the Vedic tradition which continues as Hinduism till today.

The book, as the author himself points out, is a sequel to his earlier book, Nationalism in the Study of Ancient Indian History (2021). It has been reviewed in Swarajya. Just as the previous book, this book is also information-packed, well researched, intellectually engaging and also disturbing in parts, for all the right reasons.

The civilisational continuity of India is well attested in archeology. Yet we have for the past seven decades handed over the construction of historiography to elements that have intentionally and/or ignorantly denied this continuity.

What is needed is to take the archeological discoveries that attest to this continuity to the public. That is moving ‘towards a nationalist narrative of India’s ancient past.’

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