The Denial of History

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Sandhya Jain

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The Denial of History

By Sandhya Jain



Ever since NCERT Director, Dr. J.S. Rajput, made public his decision to modernize primers in all subjects, a barrage of one-sided criticism has accompanied the proposed updating of history textbooks. Even before new books could be commissioned, historians and writers with known left leanings began attributing motives to the then unknown writers. In the past year, hardly a day has passed without diatribes appearing in some newspaper or magazine.   In fairness, NCERT may have aroused misgivings in some quarters with its near-simultaneous decision to advise schools not to teach certain portions of the old history books on grounds that the Jat, Jain and Sikh communities had taken offence to some portions. But to the extent that these concerns were academically valid, they could have been accommodated in the new books. Thus the old authors would not have felt needled.


Anyway, several of NCERT’s new history books have since come out; some have been badly received. Yet one book – Medieval India for Class Eleven by Dr. Meenakshi Jain – has been greeted with deafening silence for nearly seven months. Fellow travelers have informed me that there has been intense pressure on Left historians to condemn this otherwise accurate narrative, as it deviates too sharply from their own perspective. Hence, under the aegis of the Left-dominated Indian History Congress (IHC), an Index of Errors of all the new books has been compiled; the section on Medieval India is presented under the signature of Prof. Irfan Habib.


No doubt Prof. Habib’s name has been used because of his richly deserved reputation as a formidable scholar. Yet it is equally undeniable that he ranks among intellectuals who deny legitimacy to the Hindu civilizational ethos and its place in national life. This school has sought to keep civilizational issues out of history books and to whitewash the remembered horrors of the medieval era.


NCERT’s new book on Medieval India has given them a rude shock. Although the author has relied solely upon the published works of renowned historians in India and abroad, the straightforward narrative has upset the stalwarts of the Indian History Congress, who protest that “the dark corners of the medieval era” have been brought into the light of day.  In all objectivity, this should not be surprising as the period had few redeeming features (these have been mentioned wherever they occur). Prof. Habib and his friends should have accepted the truth gracefully. Instead, they have tried to challenge almost every fact in the book, little realizing that it has relied extensively upon their own published research and other standard works in the discipline! This brings their own intellectual credibility into question.


A few telling examples will suffice to elucidate how far intellectual integrity has been sacrificed at the altar of political ideology. For instance, the IHC Index of Errors sharply rebukes the author for claiming that Indian peasants suffered unparalleled exploitation under the Delhi Sultanate. Yet it is Irfan Habib who states that: “To begin with, the new conquerors and rulers…were of a different faith (Islam) from that of their predecessors… their principal achievements lay in a great systematization of agrarian exploitation and an immense concentration of the resources so obtained” [“The Social Distribution of Landed Property in Pre‑British India,” Ed. R.S. Sharma and V. Jha, Indian Society: Historical Probings, PPH, 1974, p. 287].


The IHC refutes the statement that Sultan Iltutmish settled two thousand Turkish soldiers in the Doab to fortify his political and financial position. Yet Irfan Habib’s own father, Mohammad Habib, asserted that: “…Iltutmish was the first to realize the economic potentialities of the Doab. By setting two thousand Turkish soldiers there, he secured for the Turkish state the financial and administrative control of one of the most prosperous regions of northern India” [A Comprehensive History of India, ed. Mohammad Habib and K.A. Nizami, PPH, 1970, p. 227].


The NCERT authors’ critique of Balban as a weak ruler has been strongly disparaged. Here again, Habib and Nizami assert: “Balban, his officers and his army… proved themselves extraordinarily inefficient and clumsy” (ibid, p. 292) and “…it took Balban six years or more to crush the rebellion of Tughril and a riffraff of two hundred thousand had to be enlisted at Awadh to strengthen the regular army. Balban did not challenge any of the great Hindu rais… his officers failed against the raids of frontier Mongol officers… both in the civil and the military field Balban and his governing class had been tried and found wanting” (ibid, p. 303). The iconoclasm attributed to Sultan Alauddin Khalji is also a direct quotation from Habib and Nizami.


The IHC’s contention that there is no proof that Sher Shah extracted jaziya is absurd. This has been stated even in Prof. Satish Chandra’s (now replaced) NCERT textbook: “Jizyah continued to be collected from the Hindus, while his nobility was drawn almost exclusively from the Afghans” [p. 150]. Surely historical facts cannot be changed to suit every whim and fancy of the moment!


The low annual growth rate of the Indian population between the years 1600 – 1800, pegged at 0.14%, has been denied by the IHC. Alas, it is Irfan Habib who declaims: “…the population during the Mughal period did not remain stable though the compound rate of growth, 0.14% per annum, was hardly spectacular and was much lower than the rate attained during the nineteenth century” [The Cambridge Economic History of India, Vol. I, Orient Longman, 1982, p. 167, ed. Tapan Raychaudhari and Irfan Habib). Is Habib disowning his own scholarship?


The medieval slave trade in India rivals the early Arab and later European trade from Africa, and deserves equal documentation. It would be extremely unjust to negate this atrocity from the annals of world history, as Indian historians have tended to do. The IHC claims this flourishing market in human beings declined under the Mughals.


But the noted historian Dirk Kolff (Naukar, Rajput and Sepoy. The ethnohistory of a military labour market in Hindustan, 1450‑1850, Cambridge University Press, 1990) is fairly emphatic: “There is irrefutable evidence for the enslavement and deportation of thousands and thousands of peasants by the Mughal aristocracy. Many of these were sold to countries to the west of India. The trade had flourished before 1400, when Multan was a considerable slave market, but it was continued after that, with Kabul as the main entrepot” (p. 10); “In these deportations, Jehangir also had a share” (p. 11); and “The Emperor Shahjahan also used to have offenders against the state transported beyond the river Indus to be ‘exchanged for Pathan dogs’.” He concludes: “Anyway, it is clear that, in the 1660s, Indian supply of and Persian demand for slaves was still considerable.”


One could similarly refute each and every objection in the so-called Index of Errors. It denies that the Mughals settled Afghans in areas of insurgence. But Kolff (ibid, p. 13) shows that: “Forced migrations were part of a deliberate policy in this area… Whereas Rajputs in Western Hindustan were exterminated and deported as slaves beyond the Indus, Afghans were deported towards the east and settled in areas notorious for Rajput turbulence. The Dilzak Afghans, for instance, completely disappeared from their native land as a result of intense military enrolment in India, but also because Jehangir deported a large number of them and ‘distributed’ them all over Hindustan and the Deccan.’ Afghans seem to have been especially in demand to deal with Rajputs…”


This is not to insist that there are no errata in the book. Muhammad Ghur should correctly be called Muhammad of Ghur and Muhammad Ghazni designated Muhammad of Ghazni. Bakhtiyar Khalji has been described as a slave when he was a free man, and the historian who commented adversely on Muhammad bin Tughlaq was Badauni, not Barani. But to quibble that the Dastur-ul Amal-i Alamgiri was not an official document when it was a compilation of official documents, shows how contrived the whole exercise is. None of these points merited listing in an Index of Errors; they could have been faxed to the NCERT Director for rectification in his next reprint.





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