Loss of Hindustan – A Symposium I: Dwaipayan Sen

Manan Ahmed Asif’s recent book Loss of Hindustan: The Invention of India* has aroused considerable interest that goes beyond academic readers. Since the book deals with a matter that concerns not just our past but also how we imagine our future, we at Kafila decided to try out a symposium on it – on an experimental basis, since we do not generally carry book reviews as such. We will be serially publishing three reviews/ comments on the book, by DWAIPAYAN SEN, DILIP M. MENON and HILAL AHMED, over the next few days, in the hope of provoking some discussion. We also hope to get the author’s response to these contributions. This first piece is by DWAIPAYAN SEN. The second contribution by Dilip M. Menon can be read here. You can read the final piece by Hilal Ahmed here.

Loss of Hindustan – Manan Ahmed Asif

This book is the most recent addition to a growing tradition of precolonial history-writing that depicts India as a land of milk and honey before the coming of the colonial flood.  Evidently, a European understanding of India as Hindu replaced an earlier, native understanding of India as Hindustan, rendered a home for all faiths.  Such arguments are based on the close reading of Muhammad Qasim Firishta’s Tarikh-i Firishta, and its appropriation by scholar-administrators in the employ of the East India Company.

A concept-history of Hindustan, the work under consideration seeks to remind readers of the generally agreeable and pleasant qualities of the term, as opposed to the inexorably exclusionary attributes of the allegedly British colonial idea of India.  A study of what the author calls political forgetting, the invention of India was apparently predicated on the loss of Hindustan.

Readers concerned with origins will be disappointed.  Nowhere are we explicitly informed about from where “Hindustan” actually emerged.  In Asif’s telling, the concept and term is rendered static, and doesn’t itself undergo changes over the course of the several centuries the book studies, and in the hands of the wide cast of characters surveyed.  Strangely, in attempting to undo or circumvent what he repeatedly calls a “colonial episteme,” The Loss of Hindustan reenacts a long critiqued colonialist historiographical trope: namely, that all history, i.e. real change, begins with the arrival of our once colonial masters.  Prior to their arrival, we had a long, static, and unchanging past.

For a historian professing sensitivity to matters of historical amnesia, one is also curiously not apprised of the analogous concepts that Hindustan displaced.  Rather, what is of paramount importance is the role of the so-called “colonial episteme” in violating the purportedly all-embracing and religious-inclusive ideals of Hindustan.  While much is made of the violence of the British colonial project – replete with the deployment of monolithic ideas of colonizer and colonized, that, oddly, persist into the contemporary moment – a parallel gesture does not extend to the various imperial projects that characterized the medieval.  Presumably, precolonial traditions of conquest and nomenclature were an amicable and happy affair, unamenable to the kinds of critique historians have extended of European imperialisms.

The author, furthermore, does not seem aware of the various historiographical traditions that constitute historical discussions about the advent and development of British colonial rule in South Asia.  Readers familiar with this scholarship will recall the varied elements of continuity that characterized the transitions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the possibility that similar tendencies could be detected in domains of history and historiography.  What is offered instead is an imagination of British colonialism omniscient in its destruction of precolonial life-worlds, uniform, and internally consistent.  Such interpretations might be appropriate for nationalist mythography, but do not deserve resuscitation and amplification in serious works of history.

The Loss of Hindustan thus studiously avoids the actual social and political history of the medieval, and erects in its place a lament for an ideal articulated primarily by court historians of various Islamicate polities between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries.  These accounts are surprisingly read at face value, with a minimal, if any, degree of source criticism.  The compulsions of patronage, or the political necessity to portray Indo-Islamic rule as a matter of congenial acquiescence do not appear to inform the analysis of the concept, and substantial evidence of the claim that South Asia was a region whose peoples understood themselves as Hindustani is nowhere proffered with any degree of persuasiveness.  The insights of historians that medieval identities were contingent, localized, multifaceted, and more often than not, based on ethnic affinity, are brushed away in service of sweeping generalization.  The consequence is an under-historicized paean to the lost glories of Hindustan and Hindustanis.

While one can comprehend why some may feel compelled by contemporary political necessities to paint sanitized pictures of medieval India while blaming British colonialism for all that was evil and harmful, one wonders whether it is possible to write histories of the past that are not beholden to such presentist inclinations, and unencumbered by the obviously fallacious assumptions of Hindutva.  To be certain, the fear of appropriation by the right may be a legitimate one, but surely there must also be possible avenues for a dispassionate reckoning with the varied forms and consequences of medieval imperialism that go beyond celebratory accounts of aristocratic pluralisms.  For what is at stake is not simply telling the truth about the past, but the intellectual honesty of our historical pursuits.  The Loss of Hindustan issues a reminder of the continued salience of such concerns.

*Manan Ahmed Asif, The Loss of Hindustan: The Invention of India, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2020).

Dwaipayan Sen is Associate Professor of History, FLAME University

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