Stereotyping and manipulation of historical facts

Print Friendly, PDF & Email    It is a strange paradox that the historian plays a crucial role in the future of the society which he is studying. The historian’s interest lies in trying to understand the emergence and the evolution of a society in a historical perspective, where the term society includes every aspect of people’s life. As a result of his investigations, the historian creates a picture of the society. In his handling of the evidence from the past, he is often influenced by his own contemporary setting. Historical interpretation can therefore become a two way process-where, the needs of the present are read into the past, and where the image of the past is sought to be imposed upon the present. The image of the past is the historian’s contribution to the future. For, this image can be used by his contemporaries for political myth making. Such political projections of society seek intellectual justification from the theories of historians and other social scientists.

    It is a still a popular belief that the Indians were a historical people and kept no records of their history. The ancient Indians did keep records of those aspects which they felt were significant and worth preserving. It is true that most of these records do not deal with political events and activities. They are more in the nature of genealogies, legends and monastic chronicles- all legitimate constitution but not, unfortunately, very useful as a description of contemporary happenings. This latter type of record developed in the period after about A. D. 500. Court chronicles and historical biographies of considerable authenticity were maintained by the Turkish and Mughal courts and the tradition remained alive until recent times. So, when the Europeans arrived in India and began to look for histories of India, they found ample evidence on the period after about A. D. 1000. But the earlier centuries remained historically blurred. Consequently, the discovery of the Indian past was initiated under the auspices of the new rulers, the British. A major contradiction in our understanding of the entire Indian past is that this understanding derives largely from the interpretations of the Indian history made in the last two hundred years.

    The modern writing of Indian history developed during the last two centuries. It is generally conceded that the history of the colonial period in India, of the last two centuries, is an unavoidable preface to an understanding of the present. The search for or discovery of the Indian past resulted in a number of interpretations of the past. These were notions which were constantly repeated since they were first enunciated and which have become stereotypes of Indian history and culture. Even though today they are being questioned, they are still widespread. Some of these stereotypes are related to the needs of imperialism, for economic imperialism had its counterpart in cultural domination. Historical writing coming from this source aimed at explaining the past in the manner which facilitated imperial rule. Others arose, in contrast, from Indian national sentiments opposed to the nature of imperial rule, and seeking justification in the reading of the past. The ideology of Indian nationalism found not only political expression, but influenced every aspect of intellectual life-philosophy, literature, the arts and history- in the early twentieth century. The relationship with historians was especially close. The national movement itself had picked up facets from the Indian past. Those historians who were sensitive to the stirrings of nationalism also responded to these facets. Because of the cultural domination implicit in imperialism, nationalism of the anti-colonial variety had to incorporate a programmer of cultural nationalism as well, in order to regenerate the indigenous culture. The intellectual content of nationalism arose out of the need for Indians to react to the experience of colonialism, industrialization and economic backwardness. Paucity of evidence also assisted in the creation of the stereotypes. Some of the recent questioning has been necessitated by greater and improved evidence. The more persistent of the stereotypes have dominated not only historical interpretation but have become the foundation of modern political ideologies.

    The propagation of these stereotypes is to be found initially in the writing of the two main categories of people-scholars and administrators. At the level of pure scholarship, in this case the discovery of evidence, the work was both meticulous and inspiring. At the level of historical assumptions and interpretations, however, the stereotypes intruded. The degree to which the stereotype is accepted varies from one scholar to another, thus we have made an attempt to bring to the notice some of the common misinterpretations.

                         Sir Syed Ahmed Khan- An Assessment

    The great emancipator of the Indian Muslims Sir Syed Ahmad Khan carved numerous successes. Awakening the Muslims about the political ups and downs and coexistence in the presence of other nations in India was a major contribution of Sir Syed towards his society. Sir Syed was of the view that British were a civilized, educated, wise and disciplined nation and occupied India with the new war strategy and munitions that could not be matched by the locals and particularly by the Muslims. Some of the writers, like Bipin Chandra, profess that Sir Syed advised Muslims to remain aloof from politics and thus encouraged communalism and separatism. Bipin Chandra also feels that this was a serious political error which was to have harmful consequences in later years. There are some historians whose verdict is that, Sir Syed fell a prey to English diplomacy and became a champion of Muslim communalism and a stooge of British Imperialism in India. But we, in our research, found that such notions are based on wrong assumptions. Sir Syed was the man who wrote “The Causes of the Indian Revolt”, and had the courage to publish it at a time when people were being court-martialled on flimsy grounds and Wahabi suspects were being arrested and sent to the Andaman Islands. Aisha Fayyazi Sarwari, also feels that Sir Syed Ahmed Khan’s insistence on Muslims staying out of Congress was logical because he was a 19th century reformer, like Hindu reformers Ram Mohan Roy and Ranade, who sought to modernize the Muslims by introducing rational thought into religion and by inducing Muslims to resort to modern European education. From his opposition to the National Congress it has been inferred that he was unpatriotic and hostile to Indian nationalism, and had finally drifted to communalism. A close study which we undertook of his speeches, writings and letters reveals that he was neither anti-national nor a communalist. He was a nationalist in the sense that he considered India his home. The Congress, which he opposed, in his time was not an All India Organization as it became later on. The Congress of 1885 was constituted by some English educated Bengalis and few similarly educated persons from the Presidency Provinces. Jawaharlal Nehru is absolutely right when he remarks that Sir Syed Ahmad was not opposed to the National Congress because he considered it predominantly a Hindu organization; he opposed it because he thought it was politically too aggressive. Sir Syed was neither jealous of Hindus nor did he aim at applying brakes to their progress, but of course he was afraid that our social vehicle, of which Hindus and Muslims were the two wheels, would lose its balance and equilibrium by the disproportionate growth or destruction of either. He intended that these ‘two eyes’ of our mother country may shine bright with equal grace and brilliance.

                    Aurangzeb-Secular saint or pious hypocrite?

       The Mughal emperor Aurangzeb is a highly contentious figure in Indian history and is widely reviled as a bigoted tyrant in academic literature as well as in popular imagination. He is accused of persecuting Hindus and Sikhs, destroying temples, imposing exclusive taxes on non-Muslims, and stifling all forms of religious freedoms. Aurangzeb’s behavior towards the non-Muslims was no different than other rulers of the age and that most of his negative engagements with non-Muslims were not guided by religious policy but were a result of calculated political and economic considerations.

     Medieval Indian history is a contentious and controversial field. The historical texts, especially the court chronicles, had a special agenda of praising the ruler and offer exaggerated accounts of their protagonists. To complicate the matters it should also be noted that most of the translations of such texts into English were done by British colonial administrators who were hostile towards Muslims and whose intention was to create a schism in the Indian society. Beginning in 6th century there are several examples of Hindu victors desecrating the temples of the defeated. For instance, in 642 AD the Pallava King Narasemhavan I looted the image of Ganesha from the Chalukyan capital of Vatapi.

     The Muslim rule in India was consolidated in India in 1192 AD. The rulers at this time did not engage in any overt forms of discrimination like forced conversions or indiscriminate slaughter.  Once order was restored and their power consolidated the Muslim rulers left the Hindus masses to themselves. Before that, however, continuing in the time honored Indian tradition they too indulged in temple desecration as part of their expansion initiative. From 1192-1393 AD Eaton lists a total of 23 desecrations by the armies of the Delhi Sultanate.

    This implies that there wasn’t any overt form of discrimination against the Hindu community under the reign of the Delhi Sultanate and that they were well integrated into the new political order.

    Those who claim that Aurangzeb was a religious fundamentalist who harbored anti-Hindu sentiments tend to cast him in such an image from the time of his youth itself.  While it is true that Aurangzeb was extremely pious and observant of religious obligations he wasn’t as dry or colorless as he is made out to be. He had at least two Hindu wives. These marriages were performed in his youth and there is no evidence to suggest that they converted to Islam. But this is countered by the fact that Aurangzeb himself arranged the marriage of his son Prince Muazzam to the daughter of Hindu Raja Roop Singh. He had many Hindu friends and loyalists throughout his lifetime. He even pleaded with his father for the appointment of a Hindu to the post of a mansabdar despite the fact that Shahjahan wasn’t favorably disposed towards the person. Giving further credence to the claim of Aurangzeb’s youthful liberalism was his fondness for music.

      Aurangzeb’s religiously oriented orders include the formation of religious police the Muhtasib, which had no impact on the Hindu population as it had no jurisdiction over non-Muslims and its activities were limited to keeping an eye on the morality of Muslim masses, ban on the Hindu festivals of ‘Holi and Diwali,’ prohibition of the Hindu custom of widow burning, and the discontinuation of the Hindu custom of accepting offerings called ‘Jharoka Darshan’.He also prohibited the practice of ‘tuladan’ where a person was weighed in gold or other precious metals which were later on distributed to the poor.  However, a closer look reveals that these orders were not borne out of any religious intolerance but had administrative and financial motives. Aurangzeb did indeed issue orders for the proscription of the custom of widow burning on the deceased husband’s funeral pyre. This act can only be considered as laudable because it outlawed an oppressive custom.

     One of the most prominent negative acts of Aurangzeb towards the Hindus was his re- imposition of Jizyah which Akbar had abolished. This move was aimed at the establishment of a purely Islamic state in India which implied ‘the conversion of the entire population to Islam and the extinction of every form of dissent.” However, a closer look reveals that it wasn’t as it is made out to be by his critics. He re-introduced it a full twenty two years after his ascension to the throne in 1679 AD and it wasn’t universal. The payment rate was nominal. Those who were unable to work due to poor health, the unemployed, women and children were exempt from the tax.

     In addition, he also suspended it during the time of crop-failure. In 1704 AD, Aurangzeb suspended Jizyah for the duration of the war in South India. Historians contend that since the end to his war with the Marathas was nowhere in sight, it was tantamount to its abolition. It was finally abolished in totality in 1712 AD at the insistence by Asad Khan and Zulfiqar Khan, two prominent nobles. Moreover, he did not impose this on Hindus alone, Jews and Christians in his realm were also ordered to pay the tax. This shows that he wasn’t particularly interested in targeting the Hindus.  He went even further by trying to impose Jizya on the fellow Muslim kingdoms of Bijapur and Golconda whom he considered to be heretical.

     There is another interesting economic point which is often missed by historians. The above rates of jizya when taken as a whole give us a figure 2.5 % for the whole jizya-paying community. This figure is remarkably similar to the zakat payment rate for Muslims. From this we can infer that Hindu and Muslim citizens under Aurangzeb’s reign paid almost the same amount of taxes and that it would be wrong to call it an exclusive tax. It was the same tax which was collected under different categories. The Hindu population which actually paid this tax did not exceed more than ten per cent at any time.

     From the above discussion it appears that the imposition of Jizyah had more to do with administrative and expansionary motives than with any real religious reasons. Despite such claims the fact remains that there is no evidence of any systematic or large-scale attempts at forced conversion during his reign.  This is further substantiated by research which reveals that privately Aurangzeb complained of ‘the boastfulness and lack of manners of some of the new converts. If indeed his motive was simply to gain new converts he wouldn’t have displayed such irritability because of the behavior of the neophytes. The individual incidences of conversions which do exist show that that many of the converts had non-religious motivations behind their move and were initiated by themselves and not by the ruler. For instance, in April 1667 AD four Hindu judicial employees were suspended from service for indulging in usury. In order to escape the punishment they converted to Islam. In 1681 AD Raja Islam Khan converted to Islam so that his mansab of 250 soldiers can be raised to that of 400. The son of a mansabdar from Rampur converted to Islam in order to obtain a jagir.

     The inference that Aurangzeb levied the tax because of financial constraints also cannot be sustained. The proponents of this theory claim that he was oppressing the Hindus in order to run his state machinery. Contrary to such claims Aurangzeb had been facing financial difficulties from the beginning and would have implemented the tax in the year of his ascension and not twenty two years later. More importantly the amounts collected as jizya were not deposited in the imperial treasury but in a special separate treasury called ‘khazana-e-jizya.’ These amounts were mostly used for charitable purposes like the support of mostly Hindu orphans and widows. This shows that the amounts weren’t utilized to boost up the imperial treasury but served only as a charitable venture.

    When taken in their proper context the imperial records do not reveal that Aurangzeb ever ordered a general destruction of temples. But this still leaves open the question as to how many temples he destroyed and why he destroyed them.

    As far as the number of temples destroyed or desecrated by Aurangzeb is concerned there is considerable disagreement. Eaton cites five such instances. Shibli, claims that he was involved with the desecration of fourteen temples. Even if we take the higher figure into account that still leaves him short of his predecessors (Shahajahan and Jehangir’s) exploits. Instead of labeling him as the great temple desecrator it should instead be applied to his father and grandfather.

     The charge that Aurangzeb was a temple destroyer can be further countered by the fact that Aurangzeb built more temples than he destroyed. Being an orthodox Muslim ruler he stated that while no new temples can be permitted to be built, old places of worship can be repaired because ‘building cannot stand forever. If the converse had been true than he would have destroyed several temples in Deccan. Despite the fact that he was in the region for twenty five years not a single temple was desecrated here.

      Aurangzeb always had a good number of Hindu friends and confidantes. Hindu military commanders and nobles had played an important role in his ascension to the throne. Even unsympathetic contemporary European observers admit to this fact. French traveller Francois Bernier who was in India between 1656-1668 AD made the following observation: Who then can wonder that the Great Mogol, though a Mahometan, and as such an enemy to the Gentiles, always keeps in his service a large retinue of Rajas, treating them with the same consideration as his other Omaras, and appointing them to important commands in his armies?”


                       Percentage of Hindu Nobles under Shahjahan & Aurangzeb









5000 and above24.5%19.6%32.9%






    From the above discussion it can be conclusively stated that Aurangzeb’s relationship with his Hindu subjects was instrumental and realistic. He wasn’t an oppressor or a chauvinistic tyrant. He wasn’t a benevolent ruler either. He was a pragmatic ruler. His treatment of the Hindus, or for any other subject for that matter, was guided by strategic considerations. While it is true that he was puritanical in religious orientation his public policies weren’t extra-ordinarily aimed against non-Muslims. For all the accusations the conditions of certain segments of the Hindu society, like the nobility, actually improved under his reign. In conclusion, far from being a bigot Aurangzeb appears to be himself being a victim of bigoted historians whose sole purpose remains to create division and discord between Hindus and Muslims


                   Elite manipulation or mass stereotyping?

The common notion that prevails in the minds of the young and old that India belongs to only to Hindus is misconceived. The genuine love and patriotism to our country lies not in only saying” “Vande Mataram”, but not showing hatred, taking faiths as agenda for political purpose and ill treat privileged people. Present day politicians barring few are divided in factions spewing poison on each other in communal intolerance.

    We all know that Indian history is generally divided into three periods, and in most universities it is taught as the Hindu period, the Muslim period, and the British period. This periodization does not come from any Indian source. This is the invention of a British historian called James Mill who was the first person to write “A History of British India”, as he called it, in the early 19th century. He divided Indian history into Hindu civilization, Muslim civilization and the British period. When people talk about not introducing any foreign theories into the interpretation of Indian history, the first foreign theory that we should throw out is this periodization which is also inaccurate and incorrect.

The result of this periodization was that historians began to argue this and it was then picked up at the popular level. And it has become an accepted belief that in the medieval period, in the Muslim period or what was later on called the medieval period there were two large, monolithic communities, the Hindu community and the Muslim community and they were completely self-contained, uniform, and were constantly in conflict with each other. The history of this period is sought to be explained by the conflicts between the Hindus and the Muslims, particularly, political history. Whether it is the Sultans or the Mughals, it’s all in terms of who is fighting with which? Now many of us are arguing that this is a view which is not borne out by historical facts. It lies with both of the communities and is said to be constantly in conflict. This is a very crude and an incorrect way of looking at Indian history.

    It is impossible today to refer primarily to the very numerous efforts of the Sangh Parivar, whenever and wherever they are near or in power, to bring history and historians under their control. Attacks on National Council of Educational Research and Training textbooks in the Janta regime in 1977-8; the projection with considerable success of views on Babur and Ayodhya totally at variance with scholarly history during the Ramjanambhoomi movement; the wholesale communalism of school textbooks in the states ruled by the BJP is what Sanghd did.

    Since younger generation is the future leaders of our Nation, focus on text books should not remain controversial after the government’s change. The students especially in the rural areas are not well informed on healthy politics. Most students are vulnerable to petty politics and remain enigmatic since they are not able to reach the patriotic assignments in the text books.

    Let no one be in any doubt. The Sangh Combine today are out to transform popular understandings of Indian history by changing the content and manner of history teaching at the level of schools and colleges so as to accord with their own Hindutva version of that history. Unfortunately, not only the Sangh, but disturbingly large sections of the Indian elite think they are justified in doing so.

     Indeed, when early nationalist passions die down there can be greater scope for more subtle and accurate understandings of history regardless of how it affects the inescapable inventions and myths of nationalist self-image. Nationalism, after all, is “getting history wrong” at least some of the time.

     It is an elite that is suffering something of a collective identity crisis and thus more open than ever to the seductions of a history that is being reshaped according to the passions of a particular kind of identity politics.

     In so far as history is always a dialogue between the present and the past, there is no way that it can be immune from the politics and preoccupations of the present. Thus new questions are constantly being posed and new histories being written to highlight new ways in which the past and present are connected. But a history-telling that is effectively reduced to such instrumentalism as its primary purpose is no longer meaningful history though it can certainly be meaningful politics.

    So history writing and teaching may not be separable from the passions of politics at any given time but this must not be made into an excuse either for relativism in history (anything goes) or myth-making as history.


    An analysis of the totality of Indian society today has to account for a variety of transitions taking place and involving tribal groups, peasant groups and at the most articulate level, the change to industrialization. The nature of these changes will often require changes of social values. The confrontation can no longer be evaded as it once was by the recourse to the theory that our concern has always been only with things spiritual, or by escape into the past. But the process can be facilitated by an awareness of the past, deriving from a realistic assessment.

     History has often been used in the search for an identity. Each contemporary group seeks its own identity in the past, while fragmentation of identities distorts the image. It would be unfortunate if in our search for an Indian identity from the past, we ultimately limit our vision and comprehension to the image of the past as it emerged during the colonial period. For it is only the awareness that history is made by an entire people in its total activity, which can bring us nearer to explaining the past in its concrete actuality. And this, after all, is the ultimate purpose of historical investigation.



– Arif Md Yeasin Jwadder



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