The Loss of Hindustan, the Invention of India
By Manan Ahmed Asif
Folio Books, Lahore
ISBN: 978-9697834518
334pp.

In the annals of our collective consciousness, the word ‘Hindustan’ has often been intertwined with the tapestry of the Hindu religion, creating an association that belies its true essence. However, with historian Manan Ahmed Asif’s recent book The Loss of Hindustan, the Invention of India, we shall embark on a journey to unearth the veritable treasures concealed within this evocative term.

In the year 1904, luminary poet Allama Muhammad Iqbal rendered the verses “Saaray jahaan se achha/ Hindustan hamaara” [Better than the entire world/ is our Hindustan], that echoed the spirit of the region. This spirit was not confined by religious boundaries, but elevated instead the land’s expansive realms of geography, culture and society. In Iqbal’s poem, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs coexisted harmoniously, transcending the limitations of dogma.

Asif’s book explores the history of a concept to ask a series of fundamental questions: What was the original notion behind the word ‘Hindustan?’ as a concept? How and when did it emerge? What factors contributed to its enduring influence for nearly a millennium?

Additionally, Asif examines the role the word has played in shaping ideas related to geographical location, historical understanding and communal identity. However, these seemingly simple questions prove frustratingly difficult to answer as the gradual erasure of concepts and ideas presents a significant challenge, particularly when replaced by a dominant, majority-sanctioned truth.

Historian Manan Ahmed Asif’s ambitious mission in looking at changing nomenclature is to critically engage with the very philosophy of history itself

Consider, for instance, the name of the land we know as ‘America’. What was it called prior to the arrival of colonising settlers? Can we even begin to imagine a response to that query? Yet, while we acknowledge that ‘America’ or ‘Australia’ erased precolonial names and identities, we still allow these labels to persist.

Curiously, we readily accept the convention that ‘Pakistan’ came into existence in 1947, while ‘India’ is seen as stretching back to an ancient period. The terms ‘Early Pakistan’ or ‘Early Bangladesh’ appear incongruous, yet ‘Early India’ is perceived in an unproblematic way to designate a specific period.

This puzzling discrepancy arises despite critical discussions surrounding ‘South Asia’ as a geopolitical term coined in the 20th century. Strikingly absent from these debates, however, is the concept of ‘Hindustan’.

So how does one approach the task of documenting the history of something that seems unattainable, beyond grasp and challenging to articulate?

Colonisation actively denies the colonised the opportunity to connect with their own past. Imposing a colonial language hinders how indigenous languages develop and become able to accurately represent reality. Imposition asserts that the languages of the colonised lack the necessary technical or scientific vocabulary.

Moreover, it erases archives, reducing history to absence and blurring faces and names. As a result, the colonised face diminished capacity to represent their past using alternative frameworks that don’t conform to European languages or imperial archives.

The main section of the University of Allahabad, established in 1887. Although the city was renamed ‘Prayagraj’ in 2018, the varsity’s apex decision-making Executive Council vetoed the proposal to change the university’s name | Wikimedia Commons
The main section of the University of Allahabad, established in 1887. Although the city was renamed ‘Prayagraj’ in 2018, the varsity’s apex decision-making Executive Council vetoed the proposal to change the university’s name | Wikimedia Commons

This rupture, stemming from the colonial episteme, erases a more comprehensive memory or awareness of the precolonial period. In academia, the mere substitution of a ‘translated’ term for an indigenous concept is often considered sufficient, prioritising the maintenance of citation conventions over historical truth. The discipline of history itself, employed as a tool of colonisation, frequently resists the demands made by the colonised.

When a concept’s erasure lacks acknowledgement within the realm of academia, the history surrounding it must confront the act of political oblivion. This process involves overlaying the present on to the past, allowing current circumstances, biases and preconceptions to overshadow the intricacies and lived realities of bygone times.

Political forgetting is an ongoing phenomenon that occurs in the shadow of origin narratives. Exemplifying this phenomenon is the Republic of India’s endeavours to reclaim city and street names from those bestowed by the British, for instance, ‘Bombay’ to ‘Mumbai’ in 1995 and ‘Calcutta’ to ‘Kolkata’ in 2002.

More recently, the focus of reclamation has shifted towards aspects associated with the Mughal era. To take a fresh example, in 1583, Mughal emperor Jalaluddin Akbar established a city at the confluence of the Ganga and Yamuna rivers, and named it ‘Allahabad’ — or ‘Illahabad’ as known to its residents. More than 400 years later, in 2018, the elected provincial government renamed the city ‘Prayagraj’.

Allahabad, being a colonial term, and the Mughals, considered a colonising force, exemplify the impact of political forgetting. This is not unique to India, though. A similar process has occurred in Pakistan, where few present-day Pakistanis recall the existence of ‘East Pakistan’. The state has erased this history from textbooks or, as historian and author of 1971: A People’s History from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India Anam Zakaria describes, has trivialised and neutralised it through official narratives.

The idea of Hindustan, both as a political and a spatial concept, is documented in historical works written between the 10th and 19th centuries. These works — found in Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, Prakrit and later Urdu sources — imagine, describe and populate the Indian Subcontinent as ‘Hindustan’.

Unfortunately, colonial historical works overshadowed this story of Hindustan’s existence. The significant loss of Hindustan as a concept is traced through influential works that defined early modern and colonial historiography on the Subcontinent, such as 1768’s The History of Hindostan by Alexander Dow, a Scottish officer in the East India Company.

Dow’s book is a loose translation of the monumental Tareekh-i-Firishta [The History of Firishta] penned by Muhammad Qasim Firishta in the early 17th century, which served as a cornerstone for both European and indigenous histories of Hindustan. It remains the most important historical account of Hindustan within and beyond the Subcontinent, and forms the foundation of Asif’s book.

According to Asif, his own book is “a history of the [Tareekh-i-Firishta] and its intellectual world. It is not a work of political history and I do not reconcile the dates and events provided by various historians, including Firishta, to create an account of ‘what happened’. As an intellectual historian, I pursue primarily how and why it was understood to have happened and what that understanding did to the craft of history writing itself.”

A thought-provoking question arises regarding The Loss of Hindustan, the Invention of India and the quest to reclaim history. Here, the author distinguishes his approach from other scholars who tend to emphasise memory, anecdotes and literary interpretations. His mission is far more ambitious: to critically engage with the very philosophy of history and the fundamental enterprise of writing history. In doing so, he opens up exciting possibilities for alternative approaches and broader avenues for future historical projects.

In critically examining the relationship between historians and the nation-state, we should advocate for the inclusion of marginalised voices in historical narratives. Alternative approaches to historical methodology are avenues for expanding our understanding of history.

In this exploration, translations by scholars such as Henry Miers Elliot and Christopher Dawson are mentioned, but caution is advised against relying solely on colonial translations for studying mediaeval history. Such translations should be regarded as historical artefacts rather than current research material, to ensure a nuanced interpretation of the past.

The call for decolonisation in the study of history reverberates throughout Asif’s book, urging for a transformative approach to teaching and studying history and advocating for a re-evaluation of colonial histories.

Drawing from British colonial historiography, the discussion illuminates how the meaning of ‘Hindustan’ underwent a significant transformation, to serve the divide-and-rule policy of the British Raj.

The term, initially associated with Mughal Hindustan, gradually evolved to reflect concepts such as ‘Hindustan’, ‘Mughal India’, ‘Muhammadan India, ‘British India’ and then the republics of India and Pakistan, aligning with the shifting political and colonial contexts. This construction of British India played a pivotal role in shaping the eventual formation of separate entities, India, and Pakistan, in 1947.

The six chapters of Asif’s book allow readers to delve deeper into the complex relationships between memory, history and the challenges posed by nation-states’ selective narratives. They build upon earlier explorations encompassing European philosophy of history, alternative methodologies, translation work and the crucial quest for decolonisation.

The book sheds light on the evolving meaning of ‘Hindustan’ to convince readers that the idea has been there for a thousand years at least and of its presence in our intellectual, political and social worlds. It also reinforces a commitment to decolonisation, while advocating for a responsible and ethical approach to historical scholarship.

The reviewer is a Lecturer at the National University of Modern Languages, Islamabad. He tweets @Sohail_QAU

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 2nd, 2023

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