The past as we perceive it


The prevailing reading of history in both India and Pakistan is a narrative of embattled natives and imperious foreigners (Cosmopolis column published in the Hindu Business Line, 10 September, 2016PDF available here

Like most nerds, I cluttered my childhood with comic books about fantasy and history. These included the inimitable (if occasionally racist) Asterix series, whose breezy defiance of empire still strikes a chord in me. They also included many editions of Amar Chitra Katha stories. I remember their depiction of Indian heroes resisting centuries of foreign invasions, from the Huns to Muslims to the British. Often, whether through chemical mistake or deliberate design, these invaders were coloured green as if they were monsters, more like orcs than humans (Indians, of course, were always a beaming, Fair & Lovely pink). Both in narrative and pigment, the noble natives were clearly separated from the alien outsiders.

However simplistic that may seem, this remains the prevailing view of history outside of academia both in India and Pakistan: India buffeted by a series of invasions, conquered by various peoples who were essentially not Indian. Numerous scholars have shown how the British, in justifying their own rule in the 18th and 19th centuries, promulgated this understanding of Indian history. Nevertheless, Hindu nationalists and many avowed secularists and pluralists still imagine the past this way, seeing dynasties like the Mughals as exemplars of “foreign” domination.

In Pakistan, too, history is bracketed in terms that divide Muslim and Hindu. Under General Zia ul-Haq, school textbooks traced “the foundation of Pakistan” not to the 1947 partition but to 712 AD, the date of the conquest of Sindh by the teenage Arab general Muhammad bin Qasim. This ancient campaign was made to seem an epochal moment, when the tectonic plates of history buckled and collided and a new world emerged from their tremors. Muhammad bin Qasim’s story gifted a sense of antiquity to a nation-state really born in 1971.

What was the source of this story? Aside from meagre mentions in a few Arabic chronicles, we have very little contemporary evidence for the invasion of Sindh. The most substantial account of the episode can be found in the Chachnama, a text composed in the 13th century (five centuries after Muhammad bin Qasim’s campaign). Written in Persian, the Chachnama has long been assumed to be a translation of an 8th-century Arabic tale. The Chachnama contains the narrative of the arrival of Arab Muslim armies in Sindh, the exploits of Muhammad bin Qasim, and the systematic capture of Sindh’s cities and fortresses.

On its face, it seems very much of a piece with the wider genre of the fathnama, the “book of conquest”. In the eyes of Pakistani nationalists, the text pulls Pakistan away from the subcontinent towards Arab traditions and lineages. It offers a mythology of the coming of a benevolent Islam to South Asia. Hindu nationalists in India point to the Chachnama for evidence of historical wrongs. It appears to frame the relationship between Muslims and Hindus as those between foreigners and indigenes, subjugators and subjugated. Reading a translation of the text in Karachi in 1981, VS Naipaul likened the book to a chronicle of the Spanish conquest of Mexico.

This is the domain of the Amar Chitra Katha comic, of embattled natives and imperious foreigners. But a fascinating recent study by the historian Manan Ahmed questions each of the major assumptions associated with the Chachnama. In A Book of Conquest, Ahmed argues for a very different interpretation of the supposedly “foundational” text.

Ahmed traces how the understanding of the Chachnama was moulded by colonial and nationalist historians, how it “goes from a text about political theory of rule or social coexistence to one selectively interpreted to represent Muslim tyranny, temple destruction, and forced conversions.”

The bulk of his book, however, is a close reading of the Chachnama itself, producing a number of revelations.

Perhaps most controversially, Ahmed contends that the book was composed originally in Persian in the 13th century and that it isn’t a translation of an Arabic account from the time of Muhammad bin Qasim. Instead, the Chachnama is an “Indic text” steeped in the concerns of medieval Sindh and replete with the influence of Sanskritic traditions. It stresses accommodation and alliance between communities. Ahmed also brings overdue attention to the first part of the Chachnama, which tells the story of pre-Islamic Sindh, focusing on the rule of the Brahmin king Chach and his relations with Hindus and Buddhists around the realm. The text does not “denounce” this pre-Islamic past. Rather, Chach serves as a model of ethical kingship, one continued by Muhammad bin Qasim and then juxtaposed remarkably at the end by the corruption of the Caliph at the heart of Islamic power. The Chachnama concludes with a critique of the Caliph spoken by a female Hindu slave.

Ahmed’s re-reading will no doubt provoke scholars in both Pakistan and India. It cuts against the grain of the way the Chachnama has been discussed and taught for centuries. Though its rigorously argued style may not help win the readership it deserves outside academia, the book comes at a pivotal time.

It is getting harder to study and interpret ancient texts without angering zealots, without attracting the righteous fury of activists and internet keyboard warriors. Undeterred, we must continue to look critically at the sources that undergird our understandings of South Asian history. “Our scholarship cannot continue to insist on ‘Muslim pasts’ and ‘Hindu pasts’ as hermetically sealed categories,” Ahmed urges. “We need new histories of our collective pasts, for we continue to see all pasts through creedal differences.”

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