Decolonising History: Book discussion on “The loss of Hindustan: Invention of India”

About the author
Dr Manan Ahmed Asif is a prominent historian and an Associate Professor at Columbia University, New York. He authored the books named “Where the wild frontiers are: Pakistan and American imagination”, “A book of conquest: Chachnama and Muslim Origins South Asia” and “The loss of Hindustan: Invention of India”, published in 2020. He completed his PhD at the University of Chicago in 2008. His area of specialisation includes the intellectual history of south and Southeast Asia, critical understanding of historiography and rewriting politically forgotten histories as an effect of nationalism.

About the Chair
Dr Amir Ali is an Assistant Professor at the Centre for Political Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. He authored the book named “South Asian Islam and British multiculturalism”. His area of specialisation includes political theory, Multiculturalism and group rights.

On Book Discussion
Dr Manan Ahmed Asif delivered a lecture on 18 November 2021 at the Centre for Studies of Plural Societies, whose presentation was titled “Decolonisation and History: A Look back at Hindustan”.

His argument begins with the origins of our modern philosophy of history. When the age of Enlightenment set in Europe, philosophers like Voltaire, Kant and Hume, dissatisfied with theological explanations, undertook great intellectual labours to find out universal secular reasons behind historical phenomena like the rise and fall of civilisations and empires. They came up with creating the universal philosophy of history. However, they had, in their research, dealt with European history primarily. Thus the universal philosophy was but Eurocentric. This philosophy was spread worldwide through colonialism. Dr Manan aims to decolonise this current philosophy of history by unearthing alternative non-European, indigenous, contrarian perspectives of philosophy of history. To this end, he resurrects the idea of Hindustan, in general, and, out of it, thoughts of the Deccani philosopher Firishta, in particular – both passed to oblivion long back thanks to colonial influence on the episteme, imagination and identity of the subcontinent.

Through his book The Loss of Hindustan: The Invention of India, Manan shows how a largely tolerant, syncretic idea of Hindustan existed during the middle ages in the subcontinent, which was lost in the process of colonial history writing, dissemination of its products and in the process of Indian (and Pakistani) nation-making, which, as it requires selective remembering, likewise helps selective forgetting of the past.

Following Hobbes’s hugely influential model of advancement of a lawless original state of humans to a ruled, civilised society, colonial history projected Muslim rule in India as the ancient state of anarchy. In contrast, British rule impairs the rule of law leading Indian society to a higher order.

Around the time Hobbes and Locke were writing their political philosophies, Firishta, a widely travelled historian of indigenous tradition and an exact contemporary of Bacon, was responding to questions like how present-day states such as the kingdoms of Bijapur and Golconda came into being, what the ancient state was, how their present state is sustained, and how they differ from the Mughals and assert so – problems of the very kind that intrigued Hobbes, Locke and Hume. But unlike European political thinkers whose premise was the inevitability of conflict between men, who sought to make use of the power of the ‘enlightened’ over others and, besides wars, gave us colonialism, political thinkers in the Deccan were imagining the world in a much different way, where conflict between men was not a given necessity, where political borders between states were never seen as impediments to the idea of Hindustan, where one’s identity could not be pigeonholed into one religious affiliation and where religious communities were never watertight compartments as in Europe. This traditional thinking is what forms part of, and can summarise, the lost idea of Hindustan.

Firishta’s works were, in India in the late middle ages, the most popular ones by a historian. Manan shows that his thoughts even reached the Enlightenment Titans of Europe like Voltaire, Hume, Rousseau and Kant via Lt Col Alexander Dow’s hugely popular book The History of Hindustan and influenced them, despite remaining unacknowledged in the footnotes of their seminal works.

Manan’s call is not to re-create a Utopia of Hindustan today but to pay the likes of Firishta their due credit by decolonising philosophy of history and fend off global climate crisis with the rejuvenated collective spirit from their philosophy and not with the individualistic (Capitalist) ethics of Europe that birthed colonialism as well the climate crisis itself.

The discussion on the book was started by Dr Amir Ali after the lecture of Dr Asif, with some of these points, that he was thankful to Dr Manan Ahmed Asif for writing such a historically significant book which reminds him of the multiple resonances of Hindustan. He defined by stating contemporary examples from the Indian diaspora that the coming forward of the Sikh community for helping Muslims by sharing their gurudwaras for prayer when their rights were denied.

There came a question about the forces within religion for making a homogeneous society against plurality. Dr Asif clearly stated that “religion being the primary vehicle for homogeneous society is coming from Europe”. By explaining the history of Europe, mainly of Holocaust, he made clear that the notion of religion being an enclosed thing is the creation of Europe, whereas we Indians had a past of not such because India has witnessed Kabir, Khusru, Nizamuddin Auliya etc. in Indian history.

The question over secularism was countered by asking to define secularism. Also, he countered the methodology in history writing, searching for a ‘secular’ source by stating that “Religion is present in the history just as the state is present in the modern history”. The notion that religion is something to be removed or hidden from the public is nothing but the concept of the dominant community.

His scholarly explanation on Multiculturalism in history made it very clear that it is colonial historiography that made Multiculturalism something ‘strange’ and conflict as something ‘natural. The co-existence among different and diverse communities are evident in history, which is deliberately politically forgotten and to be recovered for the survival of humanity.

The report is prepared by CSPS Research Interns Simoon Sen and Nahla Mohammad KT.