Predicaments of Secular Histories
The professional history writing that developed in India in the early decades after independence was powerfully shaped by the intellectual culture of the time. New India looked forward to a future in which democracy would unfold, the rights of free citizens would be defined, and the commitments made during the national movement would be realized. Troubled by memories of the communal carnage and trauma of the Partition years — when thousands of Hindus and Muslims killed each other — the intellectuals of this new India struggled to create a secular and democratic public culture. Inspired by the ideals of democratic citizenship, they hoped for a society where individuals would be emancipated from their religious and affective ties and reborn as secular citizens of a democratic state. Historians turned to the past to counter communal representations of history, question communal stereotypes, and write a secular national history. The critique of communal prejudice was seen as necessary for developing a history that was scientific and objective. To be authentic, it was believed, this new history had to be both scientific and secular.
In the decades that followed, sectarian conflicts continued. New trends in historical writing emerged; historians became aware of the problems of both objectivism and the meaning of narrative truth; but the battle against communal histories continued to determine the way new histories were framed. In this essay I will look at the way this battle has shaped the agendas of secular histories — its terms of reference, its silences and erasures, its tropes of analyses, its fears and anxieties. I will reflect on the predicaments of doing “secular” histories: the need to simultaneously critique communal frames and transcend the limits that such a critique imposes. Through an inner critique of secular histories — for I locate myself within the tradition — the essay will discuss the larger problem of writing history.1
Communal histories of India are premised on one fundamental assumption: that India is a society fractured into two overarching religious communities — Hindus and Muslims. These communities are not only separate and distinct but also irreconcilably opposed. Their cultures, values, social practices, and beliefs have little in common. Their histories are histories of discord: of mutual hostility, hatred, conflict, battles for domination. The boundaries of their identities are well etched, firmly defined, and categorically drawn, the lines deepened by a long history of mutual antagonism.2
For many years secular histories have battled against these ideas and the histories through which they have been naturalized.3 Anxious about the growth of communalism and haunted by the fear of communal violence, secular historians have returned to the past to build the premises of a humane, secular, and democratic present. They have questioned communal assumptions, deconstructed communal stereotypes, mined the archives for alternate evidence, reread the texts, and presented secular counternarratives.
But secular histories have been strongly defined by the history of their origin. The desire to argue against the constitutive assumptions of communal history has shaped the questions that have been posed, the narrative choices that have been made, and the way arguments have been elaborated. Secular historians have questioned communal stereotypes by turning them upside down and have countered communal assumptions by inverting them. Where communal historians can only see the hard lines of the boundaries that separate communities, secular historians have emphasized the porosity and open-endedness of these boundaries. Where communal historians look at the communities as homogenous and unitary, secular historians point to the heterogeneity and fragmentation within them. Where communal historians look at the past as a time of communal discord, secular historians have sought to underline the elements of concord, harmony, and togetherness. Where communal historians hear only the voices of orthodoxy and sectarianism, secularists have searched for histories of syncretism and tolerance.
Secular histories continue to be framed within the terms of these oppositions. In recent years the arguments have been nuanced, issues have been problematized, new narrative strategies have been adopted, and the horizons of history have expanded. Yet in the finest accounts we can still discover some of the recurring tropes of secular histories that I am referring to. Let me elaborate by discussing a recent book, Muzaffar Alam’s The Languages of Political Islam, c. 1200 –1800. I choose to focus on this book because it is a brilliant account of the history of Islam in India, destined to become a classic; yet even the finest texts on such subjects, including Alam’s, are structured by the recurring tropes I am referring to.
Alam sets out to counter the abiding image of Islam as a closed, dogmatic, intolerant faith whose doctrines are fixed and unchanging, their authority deriving from canonical sanctified texts that are not subject to interpretation and change. In many ways produced and circulated by the West, this image haunts the West and is frequently invoked to legitimate attacks on Islamic states. It often even shapes the way Muslims perceive their own religion and define their own identity. And in India it is a stereotype that is central to the Hindu communal representations of the Muslim other and provides the counterpoint against which Hindus are projected as tolerant, open-minded, flexible, forbearing, and forgiving.
Alam effectively deconstructs the stereotype and questions each of its assumptions. Through a rich exploration of the languages of political Islam in India, Alam shows how Islam evolved as it moved from its Perso-Islamic context to newer lands and confronted new cultures, new ideas, new societies, and new polities. This contact produced a dialogue that transformed both Islam and the local cultures. Islam opened itself to non-Islamic influences, incorporating local practices, redefining its original ideals. While at the elite level the connection with the Perso-Turkish tradition remained powerful, at the popular level Islam was Indianized. The Sufis — mystic saints — reflected on the mundane world in a language steeped in syncretic ideas: they absorbed Hindu influences, talked of removing misery among those in distress, and underlined the need to create a common basis for appreciating the “ultimate reality.” Alam shows, in a highly textured account, how the vocabulary of Islamic politics itself changed. Words like governance, obedience, resistance, and victory came to acquire new meanings. Sharia — the Islamic legal code — was reinterpreted. It was not treated as a fixed text, frozen in time, reflective of the power of Islamic orthodoxy, a code that all Muslims were doomed to follow. The sharia was continuously reworked in ways that could make it adequate to the demands of governance in an alien culture. Consequently, it came to acquire more than one meaning. So over the centuries, writes Alam, “the language of the Islamic East moved towards a syncretic mix: a legacy of cooperation and assimilation developed from the days of the Sultanate to the end of Mughal rule; and conflict situations tended to be resolved along a pattern informed by this strong political tradition of accommodation within medieval Islam.”4
Implicit in this account is a linear history of increasing assimilation and accommodation leading to an ultimate breakdown of rigidities, an erosion of dogmas, a blurring of the boundaries of faith, a creative openness. Cultures and religions open out to each other, absorb influences, mutate. The “pure” is progressively alloyed, the premises of understanding develop, orthodoxy is contained.
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- There have been several powerful critiques of the concept of secularism. See Ashis Nandy, “The Politics of Secularism and the Recovery of Religious Tolerance,” in Mirrors of Violence, ed. Veena Das (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1990), 69 – 93; T. N. Madan, “Secularism in Its Place,” Journal of Asian Studies 46 (1987): 747 – 59; and Partha Chatterjee, “Secularism and Tolerance,” in Secularism and Its Critics, ed. Rajeev Bhargava (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998), 345 – 79. For a nuanced and sophisticated defense of the concept see Rajeev Bhargava, “What Is Secularism For?” in Secularism and Its Critics, 468 – 542.
- An early assessment of these histories can be found in Romila Thapar, Bipan Chandra, and Harbans Mukhia, Communalism and the Writing of Indian History (New Delhi: Peoples Publishing House, 1969). For a discussion of communal stereotypes and frames of reference see Bipan Chandra, Communalism in Modern India (Delhi: Vani Educational Books, 1984); Gyanendra Pandey, The Construction of Communalism in Colonial India (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1990); and Mushirul Hasan, Nationalism and Communal Politics in India, 1885 –1930 (Delhi: Manohar, 1991).
- Chandra, Communalism.
- Muzaffar Alam, The Languages of Political Islam, c. 1200 –1800 (New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2005), 141.