Loss of Hindustan – A Symposium III: Hilal Ahmed

This article by HILAL AHMED is the third and final contribution in the set of three reviews/ comments on Manan Ahmed Asif’s Loss of Hindustan. The first contribution by Dwaipayan Sen can be read here and the second by Dilip M. Menon can be accessed here.

A Political Reading

Loss of Hindustan – Manan Ahmed Asif

This is a provocative book in two different ways. It provokes us to interrogate the supposedly foundational propositions that constitute the very first article of the Indian Constitution: ‘India that is Bharat’. The book destabilizes the very language—the concepts, categories, frames—by which we are trained to envisage India as a historic entity and/or as a civilization.

The author does not merely engage in producing a deconstructionist version of India’s past. He, unlike others, incites us to imagine the unimaginable: the idea of Hindustan. The book introduces us to a rich archive of Persian scholarship and explores the ways in which Hindustan as a concept as well as a geo-political reality is erased to pave the way for a new intellectual imagination, India.

The Loss of Hindustan is also provocative in an overtly political sense. The book cannot be described as an intellectual-historical project. It raises a few powerful political questions especially in relation to the placing of modern history in postcolonial projects of nation building.

The author, however, does not want us to read the book through the prism of politics. He makes a broad clarification that his objective is not to write any revisionist political history. Instead, as an intellectual historian, he wishes to pursue a different reading of medieval historians (especially the work of Muhammad Qasim Firishta’s Tarikh written in the early seventeenth century) to comprehend ‘how and why it was understood to have happened and what that understanding did to the craft of history writing itself’ (p. 25).

This clarification, however, becomes rather meaningless when one reads the Afterword of the book. The Author recognizes the crisis of the past and the rise of majoritarianism in South Asia. He celebrates the authority of historians and proposes an ethical-intellectual way out. This evocation of ethics of history and for that matter, ethics of historian, underlines an intellectual politics, which the author also recognizes (though implicitly!).

The different facets of this intellectual politics, in my view, need to be investigated to understand the wider signification of this valuable scholarly contribution. More specifically, I explore two forms of political engagements in this text: first, the choice of a conceptual framework, methodological moves and the proposed sets of arguments; and second, a critical assessment of the claim that the reclamation of an ethical history of Hindustan is intellectually possible and politically desirable.

Let me begin with the structure of the main argument. The book problematizes the dominant historical assumption that the British were the first to control the entire territory of South Asia and this region did not have any coherent notion of territoriality or political organization before the Raj. It is argued that this assumption stems from the “colonial episteme”: a domain of knowledge, which claimed to introduce the South Asians to their own past by inventing ‘India as five thousand years old civilization’. To counter the outcome of this colonial episteme, the book introduces us to the idea of Hindustan and asks a few crucial questions: ‘What was the idea of Hindustan? When did it come about and what made it powerful enough to persist for nearly a thousand years? What role did it play in organizing ideas of place, of history, of community?’ (p.3).

To answer these questions, the author invokes Ashis Nandy’s conceptualization of ‘political forgetting’. He notes: ‘political forgetting superimposes the present over the past such that all the conveniences and prejudices of the present overshadow the complexities and lived-in realities of the past’ (p.5). The notion of political forgetting is employed to explore the idea of Hindustan ‘as an object of historical study’ as well as the ‘active or passive subject of history writing’. The erasure of Hindustan as a conceptual category is seen as a deliberate act by the colonial/European historians—a political forgetting to produce a scientific and authentic version of India and its history.

The Loss of Hindustan takes us to the sources that are used as raw material by colonial historiography to construct the history of India. The author reinterprets these sources as independent historical explorations to demonstrate how Hindustan as an intellectual category functions in the realm of these scholarly writings. Although the book revolves around Muhammad Qasim Firishta’s monumental historical work Tarikh, a broad overview of what the author calls intellectual geography of medieval Hindustan is produced with a remarkable originality. It is suggested that these historians ‘lend their materials to be used, and reused, by successive generations’ and thus create a community of scholars.

The specificities of historical writing in this intellectual geography is one of the most original arguments of the book. Broadly speaking, the author finds four features of historical enterprise in precolonial Hindustan. First, the writing of history was always seen as an unfinished business. The historians recognized themselves as members of an intellectual community and the work of ‘history was understood as attaining its completion in the future’ (p.75). Second, the historians of Hindustan remained conscious of their task as a historian. The discussion on Abuʾl Fazl Baihaqi, who worked as a scribe and secretary for eight successive rulers is very relevant here. According to the author these historians made a distinction between the historian and his history. History was meant to ‘serve future generations, while the historian himself served the present’ (P.77).

The remarkable clarity about the sources and interpretation of the past is the third feature of medieval intellectual geography. The distinction between the text and observation made by Minhaj Siraj Juzjani is invoked as an example to underline this aspect. Juzjani, the author argues, ‘is aware that his interpretative choices could be “mistakes” and begs those who have rank to forgive him. He understands that his errors could be seen as rebukes to political power, yet he is willing to take the risk’ (p. 80). Finally, the ethical dimension of history unites these scholars. The book discusses Ziyauddin Barani and 15th century historian Mir Khawad to argue that these scholars were very particular about the ethics of history for producing an honest truth of the past.

These features of historical writings, the author argues, underline what he describes as a particular kind of philosophy of history. He notes: ‘the central motif that emerges from this study of historians…is the requirement of cultivating a personal ethics in thinking about one’s political world…it is this shared ethic, this reliance on historians’ past and conversations with historians’ present, that creates a philosophy of history for Hindustan’ (p.97). This discovery of Hindustan’s intellectual geography is contrasted with colonial history writing. The book argues that although Hindustan as a concept survived in the writing of 19th century historians of Hindustan such as Syed Ahmad Khan, Shibli Numani and Abdul Halim Sharar, they were in conversation with, or working on, projects that were pan-Asian or pan-Islamic’ (p.213).

Underlining the significance of the idea of Hindustan, the author makes a futuristic observation in the final chapter. He reminds us that ‘we are also inheritors of a deep archive of history writing that stretches from …the thirteenth century to the twentieth. In this archive is an ethics of writing history that ought to be our greatest resource in launching new intellectual projects’ (p.225). These new intellectual projects, it is hoped, may serve to counter prejudices and religious essentialisms of various kinds in South Asia.

Two critical points emerge from this re-reading of the main arguments of the book. The first point is about the conceptual framework. Ashis Nandy uses the idea of ‘forgetting’ as a critique of modern conception of history. He strongly evokes the distinction between the past and history and offers us a theoretical reference point to think about the possible ways in which past survives in the realm of the present. Nandy is equally critical to the ‘sensitive historians’, who are involved in a project of alternative history. Nandy writes:

‘[These] historians are exceptions and even they are basically pleading for … “contraband history.” [They] leave one with the hope that someday their kind will reactivate their own cultural memories and bring in an element of radical self-criticism in their own discipline…I suspect that this denial of the historicity of history is built on…pillars of modern knowledge systems.’ (Nandy, 1995, p. 53)

              The Loss of Hindustan, no doubt, takes this argument very seriously. The author offers a powerful critique of modern colonial historiography to substantiate his claim that Hindustan was indeed erased by the colonial project of political forgetting. However, at another level, Asif, like the historians of alternative history school, calls upon his fellow scholars to get into this archive of Hindustan to begin a new intellectual-historical project of recovery. In other words, a possible discovery of Hindustan—at least in the recognized branch of history writing known as intellectual history—is required to tackle the use and misuse associated with the given colonial, anti-colonial and nationalist discoveries of India.

There is certainly a need to have a critical engagement with history. Yet, to unfold the potentials of such ethical intellectual projects, one must not be trapped in the essentialist binary between good histories/historians (such as medieval historians who were elite aristocrats as well) and bad histories/historians (such as 19th century Europeans scholars, particularly associated with the British East India company).

No one can deny the role played by colonial historiography in producing a complex knowledge apparatus. However, European history writing cannot entirely be reduced to the political objectives of the Raj. Partha Mitter’s seminal work The Much Maligned Monsters: A History of European Reactions to Indian Art (1977) is very relevant to understand this point. Mitra deals with the political question at two levels. At a more general level, Mitter questions the ‘dominance of Western classical canons by showing it to be the product of a specific historical and cultural situation rather than one with a timeless and universal quality’ (Mitter 1992, xiv). He argues that the terms of discourse in a colonial situation are always determined by the nature of power relations.

However, at a more complex level, he clearly demonstrates the fact that the European reactions to Indian art were more closely linked to the European religious and philosophical traditions. He gives equal importance to the historical evolution of different European aesthetic traditions and produces a nuanced argument. One does not find this kind of layered assessment of colonial knowledge in the Loss of Hindustan and we are left with a rather known Saidian critique of ‘oriental despotism’.

This brings us to the second critical point: the history and its politics. The Loss of Hindustan seems to underline a direct uncomplicated correlation between the erasure of Hindustan and the overtly essentialist political projects (such as Pakistan of Muslim League, Hindusthan of Hindu Mahasabha or rise of majoritarianism in recent years). The author argues: ‘The partitioning of the subcontinent in 1947 was based on anti-colonial politicians and intellectuals—from Muhammad Ali Jinnah to Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar to Vinayak Damodar Savarkar—internalizing the colonial argument about Muslim foreignness and considering the past five hundred years of the subcontinent as representative of despotism and decay’ (p.227). This generalization needs to be evaluated critically, especially with regard to the colonial notion of Muslim foreignness.

The political debates in colonial India were certainly history-driven; but these debates cannot be called history-centric. The political elite relied either on western liberal political traditions/desirability of democratic institutions to make a case for self-rule or evoked ethical-moral claims for asserting themselves as legitimate stakeholders. The history was often seen as an addition to the core argument. Faisal Devji’s work Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea is very relevant to elaborate this point.

Devji argues that the League, and particularly Jinnah, remained rather apprehensive towards history. Instead of evoking the history of Muslim rule in India, the League concentrated on the notion of Muslim future – a future that could only be achieved by creating an unprecedented and completely ahistorical entity called Pakistan. This was, as it appears, a complicated formulation. Muslim rule as a victorious history of Islam in India could have been used to make a powerful political claim.

Devji, however, offers a nuanced explanation to the posers of this kind. Focusing on the speeches of Jinnah and writings of Iqbal, he underlines the fact that the Indian story of Muslim rule was actually seen as an inseparable constituent of the meta-narrative of Islam. Muslims in India or for that matter Muslim rule, thus, eventually became a part of the pan-Islamic world community or umma; at the same time, however, they were also recognized as representative of an enduring Islamic culture. This cultural unity of Muslims, as the argument goes, seems to transform them into a nation.  History, in this formulation, is nothing more than a mere description of certain events and episodes that characterize the cultural expressions of the universal idea of Islam.

This reconstruction of the Islamic past as cultural manifestations, we must note, goes well with the debates initiated by the Islamic reforms movements in the sub-continent especially in the late 19th and early 20th century. From Altaf Hussain Hali to the scholars of Deoband School looked at the stories of Muslim rule in India or elsewhere as pointers to underline the contemporary plight of Muslims. The ‘here and now’ of Muslims, they seem to argue, could only be addressed by embracing the message of Islam in its entirety. This reformist zeal not merely called upon Muslims to become more/truer Muslims but also questioned, rather indirectly, the religious legitimacy of the Muslim rulers. In this sense, the religious debates on the Islamic past (if not history!), did not show any interest in the medieval intellectual geography of Hindustan.

This political reading of the Loss of Hindustan does not detract from what Manan Ahmed Asif calls the ‘ethical project’ to engage with the past. Following this intellectual suggestion, it could be asserted that the past does not always operate as metaphor in the realm of the political; instead it also survives as metonymy. The Loss of Hindustan, I argue, opens up immense possibilities to understand this politics of the past.


Nandy, Ashis. 1995. History’s Forgotten Doubles. History and Theory. Vol. 34, no. 2. pp. 44–66.

Faisal Devji. 2013. Muslim Zion: Pakistan as a Political Idea. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Mitter, Partha. 1977. Much Maligned Monsters: History of European Reactions to Indian Art. Oxford: Clarendon.


Hilal Ahmed is Associate Professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi

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