Debating the Past: Academic and Popular Histories in India

Chitralekha Zutshi, December 2009

In a casual conversation with a woman I had been introduced to at a social gathering on a recent trip to India, I discovered that she had read my book on Kashmir’s history and political culture. I had only just begun to feel pride in my accomplishments when she verbally assaulted me for critiquing the record of the Indian government (and the Dogra government before it) in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. What did I, she shouted, know about Kashmir and its history, living and working in the United States, and more importantly, what right did I have to write about it? As I made a valiant effort to defend my professional qualifications and the historical discipline, I realized that the woman had raised a question that confronts historians of South Asia on a regular basis: Who has the right to interpret the past? And perhaps equally significantly, how can we, as historians, enter into a debate with individuals and groups in Indian society who have their own view of the past and its relationship to the present?

As Neeladri Bhattacharya, a noted historian of India, recently pointed out in the context of the controversy over history textbooks in India, “Historians could try and shape popular imagination, countering inherited opinions and sedimented stereotypes, but they could not deny the right of the citizens to express themselves in public, operating with their own sense of history. It is this right that defines the limits of the historian’s territory and the historian’s anxieties about such limits.”1 After all, my status as an “expert” on the history of Kashmir within the discipline seemed to mean little to this woman in the real world. In fact, to her, I could never be an expert. These concerns, it seems to me, are germane to the historical discipline as a whole and to those who practice it. In the case of India they have taken on added salience, since the need to counter the assertion by colonial officials and 19th-century European philosophers, luminaries such as Hegel among them, that the people of India lacked a historical consciousness and hence a sense of nationhood, necessarily rendered the project of recording the past into a varied and highly charged political enterprise. In contemporary India, individuals and groups continue to interpret the past in a variety of ways for multiple purposes that have real political consequences and human costs. To give an obvious example, Hindu nationalist organizations have deployed history not only to give credence to the idea of the Indian nation as eternally Hindu, but also to demolish mosques and consequently to spark riots between Hindus and Muslims in which hundreds are killed.

The controversial role of history and its place in politics in India is encapsulated in the recent brouhaha over the publication of Jinnah: India-Partition-Independence, a book by the former external affairs minister, Jaswant Singh. Because he had suggested in the book that Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the leader of the All India Muslim League, was not solely responsible for bringing about the partition of British India into India and Pakistan, but that perhaps the actions of leaders of the Indian National Congress, such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel, may have also led to this decision, Jaswant Singh was expelled from his party, the BJP (the right-wing, Hindu nationalist, Bharatiya Janata Party). Leaving aside for the moment the facts about the years leading up to India’s independence and partition, it is interesting to note the issues around which this fierce debate coalesced in Indian print and popular media. First, and the primary question being raised, was whether history should play such an important role in politics that the publication of a book would lead to the expulsion of a venerable member of a political party from its ranks. A second, and related issue, was the revelation of the antidemocratic nature of internal party politics in India, which spilled over into the public domain when the BJP government in the state of Gujarat banned the book in its territories. Finally, the debate revolved around the question asked at the beginning of this essay: who has the right to write history? TV shows and op-eds devoted to the controversy pointed out that it was not a scholar of Indian history, but rather a politician, who had sparked this debate over the history of the partition of India. Although academic historians added their voices to the mix, pointing out, for instance, that it was accepted fact in partition historiography that Congress leaders were quite as culpable in bringing about partition as Jinnah, the very fact that it took Jaswant Singh’s not-so-original book to bring this issue to the forefront of popular debate is noteworthy.2

Historians of India have grappled with such issues for decades. It is only recently, however, that they have begun to cast a critical eye on their own discipline in an attempt to answer them. A concatenation of factors sparked this move. As far as the Indian political context is concerned, the victory of the Hindu nationalist party, the BJP, in the Indian general election of 1998 was followed almost immediately by an attempt by the government to revise school history and social science textbooks. The resultant shoddily produced textbooks shamelessly rewrote the past to suit the ideological program of the ruling party, and thus sparked a vociferous public debate that involved historians, school teachers, and the public at large. Not surprisingly, the debate focused on who had the right to write the past, what purpose it served in school textbooks, and how it was to be presented to schoolchildren. The assault of the Hindu right on the secular, nationalist historiographical tradition, dating back to early 20th-century India, and the attempt by the succeeding government to replace the revised textbooks with new ones in 2005 (in which historians such as Bhattacharya played a significant role), led to a renewed self-appraisal of the discipline and its public role in India.

While the Hindu Right was engaged in this project at the national level, it was becoming increasingly clear that regional, local, and caste groups were also recording their own pasts through methods that bore no relation to the academic discipline of history and did not follow its prescribed rules (although some of its practitioners do claim to follow rigorous scientific methods of marshalling evidence). Many of these histories, written not in English but rather in the vernacular languages of India, did not need to seek the approval of academic history and its institutions, since, in Partha Chatterjee’s words, “they seek their legitimacy in the domain of the popular,”3 and have the specific purpose of expressing historical grievances while calling group members to political action, through, in part, memorializing selective events from the past while eliding others.

Memory, forgetting, and linking the past to the present play a crucial role in popular historical narratives; so for instance, Hindu nationalists argue that if Indians are being asked to forget (presumably by academic historians) the atrocities committed by Muslim rulers on Hindus in medieval India, then, by the same token, they should not have to remember the violence in Gujarat in 2002 (in which hundreds of Muslims were killed by Hindu mobs tacitly supported by the regional BJP government). Recent Kashmiri Muslim nationalist histories of Kashmir—mirror opposites of Hindu nationalist understandings of the past and equally problematic—begin with the Islamic period, thereby not only erasing Kashmir’s pre-Islamic past, but also denying Kashmir’s rich history of interactions with and contributions to Indian intellectual and philosophical traditions in the first millennium. Thus, it is important to note that simply because they lie outside the realm of academic history and draw on memories and folk traditions, does not necessarily mean that popular historical narratives are above reactionary agendas or that they are incapable of inciting violence.

Nevertheless, some practitioners of popular history, based specifically on the fact that they reject rules of evidence and rely on memories instead, profess to be challenging the very status of historical knowledge itself. Historians such as Dipesh Chakrabarty have responded to such challenges by turning a reflective eye on the nature of historical knowledge, which, he argues, is in decline because it includes multiple perspectives but is unable to give voice to a “collective, general history,” without which, ultimately, history cannot engage with everyday debates about the past, a point to which I will return later.4

So where does this self-reflection leave practitioners of academic histories? It is increasingly becoming clear that we ignore popular narratives of the past at our own peril. Simply because I stopped paying attention to the furious debates about Kashmir’s history taking place in the public realm in blogs, newspaper articles, and films, as well as in books, dismissing them as partisan drivel, does not mean that these narratives ceased to exist and did not selectively appropriate and reject material from my book for their own purposes. In any case, to think of myself as somehow operating above politics, I realized, was itself problematic, since I, too, at some level, was engaged in the act of selective remembering and forgetting. Instead, engaging with these popular representations of the past, in part through regional educational institutions, such as, in this case, Kashmir University, would not only enliven my work but also allow it to contribute to public discussions about a much-contested past.

In fact, while on a research trip to Kashmir last month, where I had the opportunity to interact with and present my work to Kashmir University faculty, research scholars, and students from a variety of disciplines, I realized that the very distinction between the academic and popular was meaningless in this context and that it would be irresponsible of me to not add my voice to these heated discussions about Kashmir’s past and present that were being carried out not just within the university’s confines but also far beyond them. However, the interventions by academic historians of India in such debates cannot have a significant impact unless, as Partha Chatterjee has rightly pointed out, they also begin to write in languages other than English, since “only original writing in the Indian languages can take up the challenge of fashioning a new conceptual language and idiom that might gain general currency in the Indian language public spheres.” This practice, without compromising on methodological rigor or rules of evidence, “would also mean opening up to, as well as confronting, the popular.”5

An example of the way academic history has not only confronted the popular, but also had a significant impact on it in the Indian case, is through school textbooks. Textbooks began to be written by professional historians, most notably Romila Thapar, in the 1960s. These put forward a secular, nationalist interpretation of Indian history in an effort to combat the colonial narrative of India as being inhabited by two antagonistic communities—Hindu and Muslim. As noted above, the Hindu Right took upon itself the task of revising these textbooks to advance its own ideological program of representing the Indian nation as Hindu and Muslims as invaders on its body politic. Revised again under the Congress-led government in 2005, the latest textbooks take into account the current trends in the historical discipline while translating them into simple knowledge for children. For instance, they present Indian history from the vantage of a variety of local and regional places and actors as well as transnational developments, without losing sight of the national narrative. Perhaps most importantly, they teach students to think about history as open to interpretation by allowing them to interpret an array of sources.

The above solutions to bridging the gap between academic and popular history leave unaddressed the more philosophical concern raised by Chakrabarty, which is relevant to the historical discipline beyond India: Is academic history unable to play a role in public discussions of the past because it is so driven by a multiplicity of narratives of hitherto marginalized groups that it has lost a universal reference point? Chakrabarty’s answer is that this is indeed the case, the solution to which lies in writing “species-histories,” histories that renew our sense of belonging to a shared collectivity as “history becomes part of a search for globally equitable forms of extraction and distribution of natural elements that are absolutely necessary for human existence.”6 A point worth considering, but not at the expense of engaging at more practical levels with popular debates over the past, since even if the historical discipline were to find a new universal in a utopian global community, economic, social, and political competition over increasingly scarce resources is likely to continue to produce local historical narratives bitterly at odds with one another.

It is to these narratives and the conflicts they produce that academic history must be in a position to contribute, in part by developing more local idioms, if it has to have any relevance whatsoever in contemporary India and the world at large. I was aware that my work on Kashmir contributes to historiographical debates within the academic field of South Asian history on, for instance, the dialogue between the region and nation, but now I realize that I can also enrich the popular realm riven by intensely partisan narratives about Kashmir’s past, in part by presenting a less polarized vision of its history while also recognizing that representing their past is perceived as the only means of survival—literally and metaphorically—by most individuals and groups in this contested region.

—Chitralekha Zutshi is associate professor of history at the College of William and Mary and the author of Languages of Belonging: Islam, Regional Identity, and the Making of Kashmir. Her current research and writing explores the historical imagination in Kashmir and colonial India.


1. Neeladri Bhattacharya, “Teaching History in Schools: The Politics of Textbooks in India,” History Workshop Journal 67 (spring 2009), 101.

2. The question of the originality of Jaswant Singh’s argument was further complicated by allegations of plagiarism. In a front page article in the Indian Express, C.M. Naim, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, pointed out that Singh’s book included several lengthy footnotes from published sources that had not been acknowledged. See C.M. Naim, “Jaswant, not-so original,” Indian Express, September 1, 2009.

3. Partha Chatterjee, “History and the Domain of the Popular,” Seminar 522 (2003), 3. The article was accessed May 28, 2009, at chatterjee.htm.

4. Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Public Life of History: An Argument out of India,” Postcolonial Studies 11:2 (2008), 169–90.

5. Chatterjee, “History and the Domain of the Popular,” 5.

6. Chakrabarty, “The Public Life of History,” 187.