History as a subject becomes an effective tool in the hand of rulers to mould the minds of the people by presenting events in a way that suits their interest. To accomplish this objective, they distort and misrepresent history and create myths around it to influence the minds of generation after generation. If not corrected, lies and distortion overshadow the truth and create a false consciousness of history.
In India, colonial powers used history to establish their political and cultural hegemony. When history was distorted with this particular intention, it created a sense of shame and backwardness among the Indians. That was what the colonial rulers wanted: to assert their superiority over the colonised people. As soon as they gained political power and defeated their Indian counterparts on the battlefield, their major concern was how to defeat them psychologically.
At this stage, they used history as a weapon to portray Indian history as insignificant which had nothing to offer. The backwardness of ancient Indian civilisation is the dominant theme in their narratives. H. B. Havell, writing about the role of the Aryans, claims that, while racially they were Indian, the purity of the Aryan race was diluted as a result of adulteration with other races that arrived in India and they became inferior and incapable of producing any cultural institutions.
Other historians pointed out that the Indian religion was nothing but a collection of superstitions. Their appreciation of ancient literature or some political figures was also couched in colonial terms. Admiring Kalidasa, they called him the Indian Shakespeare; the Gupta ruler Samadar Gupta was compared to Alexander. By adopting this method, the achievements of the Indian literary and political figures came to be recognised only with reference to Europeans personalities.
Europeans also recorded medieval history on the basis of religion. In what they call the ‘Muslim period’ they declare that Muslim rulers were despots who treated their Hindu subjects brutally. It was an attempt to create a communal gulf between the Hindus and the Muslims. The colonial government was successful in propagating this version and poisoned the minds of the people.
In the third category, colonial historians justified their arrival and ruling India on the grounds that it was declining politically, socially and economically. They claimed that they rescued India from chaos, disorder and confusion, and established peace and order. Hence, their rule was a blessing for India. Moreover, they inaugurated the modern era and ended the period of medieval history which was stagnant.
Colonial historiography thus had a strong impact on the minds of the educated Indians who started to view their history with contempt and found it barren compared to the history of Europe.
However, the colonial interpretation of history was challenged in the 20th century by the modern educated Indian historians. In the 1920s, the discovery and excavation of the Indus Valley Civilisation provided proof that in antiquity Indians were not far behind other ancient cultures. As a result, the archaeological findings and discovery of manuscripts brought to light the forgotten history of ancient India and proved the richness of its cultural contribution to world civilisation.
Indian nationalist historians went on to reconstruct their history with a fresh perspective. The Mughal period became the focus of their research as a lot of material was available. The result of their research was that during this period a composite culture was produced through the efforts of both Hindus and Muslims and India, for the first time, gained a sense of nationhood.
Historians also rejected the theory of Muslim despotism and argued that the rulers shared the opinion of other courtiers and ruled with the help of advisors. The crux of their administration was the welfare of their subjects. They expressed pride in the cultural heritage of the Mughals.
They also challenged the concept of the Mughal decline which was exaggerated by the British historians. To them, it was the decline of the Mughal dynasty but not Indian society. Political order became decentralised and as a result, there emerged provincial states such as Awadh, Bengal and Deccan which promoted and patronised the Mughal culture. They also argued that while northern India was declining politically, the hitherto marginalised areas were progressing economically. One example is of Surat which became the hub of trade and commerce and from where several business firms emerged as great financial corporations which played an important role in the 18th century as bankers to the local rulers as well as the East India Company.
The nationalist historiography not only strengthened the nationalist movement against colonialism but provided pride and confidence to the people. It countered the colonial interpretation and critically analysed the colonial rule and its impact on politics and economy. These two antithetical approaches distinctly show how history is used politically. If distortions are not corrected, the wounds of distortion remain unhealed.