Loss of Hindustan – A Symposium II: Dilip M. Menon

This article by DILIP M. MENON is the second of the three pieces that comprise the symposium on Manan Ahmed Asif’s Loss of Hindustan. The first contribution by Dwaipayan Sen can be read here. The final contribution by Hilal Ahmed can be accessed here.

The Loss of Longing

Loss of Hindustan – Manan Ahmed Asif

“Nostalgia is not what it used to be.” – Simone Signoret

To look back these days evokes less anger or longing and more a sense of gazing on ruins. Like the Angel of History, so evocatively described by Benjamin, we are being blown with our backs to an unknown future, gazing at the relentless pile of wreckage that accumulates behind us. The idea of a nation that we once imagined together is buried somewhere in the debris, our residual idealism detects its gleam sometimes. This sense of melancholy propels different shades of politics, one of which does a fine combing through the rough texture of history to recover lost visions. The other seeks to resist the lure of the past and think exigently within the horizon of the present. A hard headed engagement with contemporary times comes rooted in the belief that there is no space of authenticity or of an archive of resistance awaiting us in the past: there is no ‘there’ there. However, the mode of thinking that informs the historical discipline requires us to look back, and see the filiations with the present as much as the future. The fact that we occupy a future past (that is to say, we live in a moment that was once imagined as a future, utopian or otherwise) can be an occasion for cynicism as much as a fillip for renewed action.

What does it mean then to ask the question, from this once-future that we occupy, what happened to “Hindustan”? Indeed, what happened to the subsequent idea of India, imagined in opposition to colonial power and hubris? Manan Ahmad, in his book, The Loss of Hindustan, mourns for the effacement of a vision of subcontinental unity – evoked in the idea of Hindustan – that survived in the immediate aftermath of colonial conquest. However, by the late 18th and early 19th century, it came to be replaced by the idea of British India with a brief flicker of an older imagination surfacing in the fragile unities created by the 1857 uprising in northern India. The question remains, whether this was merely a shift in an elite-official discursive domain or did it efface other imaginations of territory and imagination.

In the first flush of tendentious readings of Said by postcolonial scholars, the discursive realm mapped seamlessly on to the social and historical. Colonial misunderstanding became the lens through which we were instructed to understand the making of a colonized society. Hopefully, we have moved away from a Manichaean postcolonial discourse which saw Indians and their ideas pinned like so many dead butterflies in a lepidopterists case. Did the circulation of ideas of Hindustan, generated between the 10th and the 19th century come to an end with the emergence of a colonial discourse of British India, as Ahmed argues? Do ideas and imaginations have an end? Are we to look at Iqbal’s invocation of Hindustan in 1904, saare jahaan se accha, as nostalgia; the invocation of an etiolated idea; or rather, as an image that survived and continued to be resonant for many? As Ahmed himself shows, the idea of a Hindustan from the Himalayas to the ocean continued to surface in the writings of nationalist figures as diverse as Savarkar and Nehru; as a civilizational space akin to that of classical Greece and Rome. While the space itself was expansive, the imagination of belonging was not. Savarkar as we know, saw Muslims as only capable of a “divided love” since their origins were construed as lying elsewhere. What Jadunath Sarkar, the historian, called the “extra-Indian direction” of the Muslim heart reflected another contending discursive formation in which Hindustan was replaced by Hindusthan (the Persianate suffix being replaced by the Sanskritic one).

Continuity of imagination sat alongside a discontinuity of imagining, inflected by the evolving social history of a colonized society. So when Ahmed asserts that the “story of Hindustan’s forgetting begins in the 18th century” (14), he is saying both too much and too little. The invocation of the myopic misunderstandings of Kant, Hegel, Mill et al (India’s history as a series of conquests by others; ideas of Muslim despotism and Hindu supineness) is not enough. Critiques of these ideas have been with us for almost half a century of postcolonial ire (Orientalism appeared in 1978; Subaltern Studies in the early 1980s; Bhabha in the 1990s; and Inden’s magisterial, but rarely invoked, Imagining India, in 1990 that exorcised the ghosts of Indology and European fancy). We need to move on from the study of texts alone to their location in deep historical contexts.

To enter the world of Manan Ahmed’s book, the core lies in a superb recuperation of the 16th c Deccani historian ‘Firishta’ (Muhammad Qasim Hindu Shah)’s text Tarikh-I Firishta and its intellectual cartography. The Deccan was the crossroads of the subcontinent and was also “ocean facing” in the authors words, making it the crucible of many influences that came not only from Hindustan. This is an argument that remains implicit throughout without being fleshed out. The idea of Hindustan must be seen as a porous, shifting one; as not only located in a hermetic political cartography of land i.e. from the Himalayas to the “limit” of the ocean. It was ever imagined within much wider maritime and continental connections that stretched from Rome to China and included a welter of faiths, commodities, and people in motion. The textual invocation of Hindustan was the tip of an iceberg.

Within the subcontinent itself, there were many disparate, sometimes interconnected geographies. These ranged from Adi Sankara’s imagination of Kerala alongside Kashmir and Puri in the 8th c; the presence of Jews and Syrian Christians on the southwestern coast which stretched “Hindustan” to west Asia and beyond; Sufi imaginations that integrated the peninsula from the Hadramawt to south east Asia; and the voyages of the Chinese eunuch admiral Zheng He in the 15th c that built upon the peninsular integration into the eastern Indian Ocean. “Hindustan” was, over the medieval and early modern period, only one imagination among many, and it neither dominated the lives of merchants, subalterns and religious specialists on the move, nor did it end or vanish. When India became independent in 1947, the Muslim socialists in the Hindi film industry from Sahir Ludhianvi to Kaifi Azmi sang it into existence for another generation, and the idea of Hindustan came alive within the cinematic imagined community of Indians. The challenge for us does not lie in imagining a “history of continuity” (28) as a counter to colonial ideological writing, but rather in reconstructing many disjunctures as much as coeval maps of belonging. When Manan Ahmed writes that the idea of British India, India and South Asia that emerge result in an “erasure” of Hindustan “as precolonial geography” of the subcontinent (35), actually the devastation is, as I have said earlier, both more and less than we imagine.

Back to Firishta and his work of 1000 folio pages which influenced the British writing of the history of India through the 18th and the 19th c; always summoned up as an exemplar of historical writing within a space imagined as indifferent to history. Ahmed points out insightfully that Firishta writes a “history of place” (24); he is distrustful of monarchs and secular authority and produces the “most comprehensive and substantive reading of the concept of Hindustan”. He brings together a wide geography that includes Lahore, Delhi, Kashmir, Bengal, Malwa, Khandesh, and Malabar; “a history of geographies within which polities appeared, and a history that was not simply a history of Muslims” (74). Through the archive of Firishta which draws upon and critically engages with a corpus of earlier historical writing by Muslim scholars on the subcontinent, Ahmed asks of us that “we reassess and relearn Hindustani historical writings from the 11th to the 20th c” (30).

What would it mean to engage with Hindustan as an emic category (alongside Bharat) as opposed to the etic categories of India and South Asia (an American affectation)? Ahmed is at his best in recovering the many-layered textual imaginations of territory summoned up by Firishta, both the landed spread from Deccan to Gujarat, or Sindh to Kashmir, as well as the “mercantile geography” (48) of Arab travel accounts of the 9-10th c CE. These textual accounts speak of persuasion and revelation rather than of conquest and violence: the conversions of the raja of Sindh, the king of Kashmir, or Cheraman Perumal from Kerala to Islam and the rendering of the Koran into local languages. There is also the expansive oceanic geography of textual conversations: letters sent in the 8th c to Harun Rashid in Baghdad and the exchange of books; and the 11th c conversation between the courts of Iraq and Hind. This is a network of texts, archives, royal patronage, saintly movements; “an intellectual geography” that weaves its way through an archipelago of cities in the Indian Ocean (52-55). However, the disaggregating vision of the ocean and its expansive world is kept at bay in the book, in the attempt to define a “Hindustan”. The recent historiography of an oceanic Islam and its imaginative textual territories in the works of Nile Green, Engseng Ho, Ronit Ricci, Sebastian Prange, Wilson Chacko, Mahmood Kooria would have provided a bracing supplement to a very landed work.

There is no Hindu or Muslim period as it were. There is instead the temporality of these conversations that creates a space conditioned by intellectual curiosity and exchange. On land, in cities like Uch, a constellation of historians like Juzjani (1190-1260), and Mohammad Awfi (1170-1230) linked the Arabic and Hindustani landscapes. By 1400, Delhi, Gujarat and Deccan were connected through these conversations and textual inscriptions, creating the “cohesiveness of an intellectual milieu in Hindustan” (59). Ahmed provides the example of Qutban Suhrawardi’s Mirigawati (1503) which combines Persian, Arabic and Sanskrit epics with a “Sufi gloss” and is written in six languages. Firishta’s patron Ibrahim Adil Shah writes the Kitab-i Nauras (1582) in seven languages, drawing upon the idea of the navarasas (the seven states of emotion, or flavours of the self) in Sanskrit aesthetic theory.

Ahmed suggests that we “reframe” the 2nd millennium as “Hindustani” but this may be stretching his case too far. What this book does is to qualify immensely the vision of the Sanskrit cosmopolis delineated by Sheldon Pollock and brings to the table a contending coeval imagination. However, in this work, these are ships that pass in the night. Ahmed’s important work sits beside the ideas of oceanic Islam and the Sanskrit cosmopolis without engaging with them. The conversation between these worlds is an emergent historiography (Rajeev Kinra, Audrey Truschke, Supriya Gandhi, Shankar Nair) and what we need is a conversation between scholars who still work within hermetic universes. It is in fact the simultaneity of these worlds that disrupts Hegelian singular-time visions of Hindu, Muslim, British and independent India. We are, here, reminded of Althusser’s jibe about historians that they have chronology, no theory of time. In this work, there is no exposition of the heterogenous and multiple times that underlie the miscegenation of imaginations.

Ahmed writes about HM Elliott’s 19th c project of the collection and translation of Arabic and Persian histories in his search for an indigenous geneaology for a “philosophy of history” founded on facts. The vast endeavour of culling, purchasing, and acquiring by any means necessary of over 15000 histories from public archives is characterized rightly by Ahmed as a “project matched only by the Trigonometric Survey and the Census” (71). Firishta’s bibliography is treated as the founding one; and it is his archive and referents then become the basis for a colonial historiography. Ahmed provides an excellent excursus on the philosophy of history in the historians that Firishta invokes, cites, and comments on. It is a necessary riposte to the assumption that the subcontinent had an entirely different intellectual and imaginative paradigm that was unable to engage with the notion of time, state and society. Baihaqui in his Tarikh of the 11th c writes not only for his patron, the monarch, but future historians as well. History was meant to serve future generations. Though the historian served, and wrote within the horizon of, the present, the text was seen as being oriented to future audiences (77-8). Juzjani was conscious of the “listening ear and the seeing eye”, of the historian; the question of veracity and witness were central (80). Barani, in his Tarikh-i Firuzshahi, spoke of history in its purposive mode: it made the reader wise; it steadied the purpose of rulers and gave them an incentive to do good. Truth was the “foundation of history” which was what made it the equal of all other sciences (81). Historians in the 15th and 16th century spoke of the vicarious quality of history – granting one indirect experience of other times; as promoting a critical attitude to the world; as a comfort amidst life’s tragedies; and most important, affording guidance to rulers to prevent them from becoming tyrants. One finds echoes here of Koselleck’s invocation of the Ciceronian idea of historia magistra vitae – history as a guidance for life, the past as exemplarity (80-89). These sections of the book which speak of traditions of historiography in Arabic and Persian on the subcontinent are exemplary in themselves in addressing the chestnut of whether there are traditions of historical thought on the subcontinent.

The theme of disaggregation surfaces in the book but is never theorised as such given the thrust towards the idealized construction of Hindustan. There are traces of a more material history that moves outside the space of textual exposition, as in the reference to Multan being connected to Kanyakumari through the trade in oud (agarwood) (115). Or a territorial deconstruction in terms of Mahmud of Ghazni’s court adjoining Iran, “the first layer in the making of a Hindustan borderlands space from the Indus to the Indian Ocean” (116). Not that these suggestions go against the grain of the argument, but that they establish the idea of Hindustan as “a place, a concept, a polyvocal history”, to use Ahmed’s own words (187). This fascinating phrase is not explored in depth and would take away from much of the tendentiousness and implicit teleology of “from Hindustan to British India” which is the leitmotif of the book. It is these occasional chinks in the argument that suggest a more nuanced and textured engagement with the notion of ever present multiple times and spaces. Ahmed puts forward a reading of Juzjani that suggests two strands in the making of the idea of Hindustan. The first is the familiarizing and domestication of territory within Persian and Muslim cosmologies and the second the reforming of sacral and political nodes through military violence (121). This suggests that the idea of Hindustan was contingent, contested and constantly being made and remade even prior to the coming of the Europeans. And as Babar later observed, “There was not a single Badshah in Hindustan; only rajas who ruled their own countries…[the] entirety of Hindustan did not belong to one person” (130). This theme, premised on materiality, the exigencies of political formation, and the fluctuating landscape of power reminds us that discursive imaginaries, by themselves, are not a very good guide to understanding history.

This is, in the end, a story of how Muslim historians imagined a Hindustan. We get to know little of the writing of their Hindu and other counterparts, or indeed other conflicting and cross hatching imaginations. In a critique of the historian Zakaullah, author of the 9 volume Tarikh-I Hindustan, writing in the late 19th century, Ahmed observes that, “for Zakaullah the only Hindustan that was visible was the one tied to Muslim polities” (217). Indeed, this is a question that could be raised of this book. It is an account of an idea of Hindustan summoned up by Muslim historians from the 11th to the 19th century, with Firishta’s account acting as the backbone of the work.

So we could well ask, what was it that we lost with the idea of Hindustan; what purchase did it have on the subcontinental imagination? Just as we could ask in the present, what hold does the idea of India have on the contemporary imagination? While Ahmed leaves us with the robust thoughts that “acknowledgement of loss is a way forward” and “that we do not romanticize that which is lost” (225) it is not clear what has been lost and how many held a belief in the idea that was lost. Discussing the existence of a concept in texts written by elite historians associated with the courts of transient political formations may not provide much grounds for nostalgia. In fact, what may be a robust attitude to adopt for historians may indeed be to lose longing itself. The loss of longing may well be the beginning of historical wisdom.

“During the course of writing this review, I was reminded of how much conversations with Sunil Kumar taught me about the medieval and early modern world of the subcontinent. Koto ajaanare janayile tumi…


Dilip M. Menon is Professor at the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa

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