Asghar Ali Engineer Memorial Lecture: History Used to Legitimize Power by State

The 14th Asghar Ali Engineer Memorial Lecture was held in Mumbai on 30th November 2019.

NEHA DABHADE | Caravan Daily

Till 1822, there was no discourse on Ayodhya being the birthplace of Ram or of narrative stating that Ram temple was under the Babri Masjid. In fact, both Babar in his Baburnama and Abu’l Fazl make no mention of any Ram Temple or construction of a Mosque. Broadly it was acknowledged that Ayodhya was Ram Janamsthan without identifying any specific site as his birthplace in Ayodhya”, said Prof. Harbans Mukhia, former professor of medieval history at Jawaharlal Nehru University and eminent author, while delivering the 14th Asghar Ali Engineer Memorial Lecture in Mumbai on 30th November 2019.

The Lecture was chaired by Prof. Suhas Palshikar, Co-Director of Lokniti in Centre for Study of Developing Societies, author and prominent political scientist.

In the lecture titled, “History as Profession and as Political Capital”, Prof. Mukhia traced the evolution of the discipline of history and through examples explained how history is used to legitimize power by the state and those in power. History, as political capital, is used to create narratives to suit those in power and thus is at a risk of being distorted for political ends and political power. The Lecture was well appreciated by over 120 guests who attended it included academics, scholars, historians, social activists, journalists and students.

Prof. Mukhia in his lecture dealt with some of the myths that are promoted by those in power to legitimize their power and actions. But he pointed out that these myths have no basis in any historical evidence and leads to distortion of history.

People listening the Asghar Ali Engineer Memorial Lecture with all attention.

He said one such oft- repeated myth is that Muslim rulers during the medieval times converted Hindus forcefully into Islam. In order to explain the falsehood in this claim he pointed out that where the Muslim rule was strong like in areas of modern day Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Bihar and Punjab, the Muslim population never exceeded 15% of the total population. Whereas, in areas like Kashmir, Bangladesh and Kerala, Muslim rule was weak or nonexistent. Yet, people converted on a substantial scale. The first conversion to Islam took place in Kerela at a time when Muslim rule hadn’t reached there.

In Kashmir, conversions had already taken place before Akbar reached there in 1586. Astonishingly, the Muslim population increased in India during the British rule. The 1941 census pecks the Muslim population at 25% as compared to Bishop Hebar’s claim in 1830s that one out of six Indians was a Muslim.

The myths such as above emerge and gain traction from the periodization of history by European scholars like James Mill who have classified periods in Indian history which are problematic. James Mill, termed the medieval time in India history as Muslim period and the ancient time as Hindu period. Interestingly in this periodization, the colonial era in India is not classified as Christian period. This colonial classification based on the religious identity of the ruler has helped deepen the communal binary of Hindus and Muslims and their alleged contestations.

Prof. Mukhia attributed this communal periodization to the disdain the European scholars had towards India, Hinduism and Islam. They believed that Indians had no sense of past or history, but history writing has captured only the change in dynasties which makes its history cyclical, producing no change as opposed to linear history of Europe.

However, Prof. Mukhia while repudiating this notion of European scholars, elucidated that though ancient India didn’t have chronicles like those written in Europe, India has a sense of its past through other sources like the Vedas, Upanishads and Jain texts. Thus, Indian history can’t be denigrated and written off. The European scholars wrongly term the medieval ages ruled by Muslim rulers as dark ages and the colonial rule as progressive to divide the Indians along religious lines and subsequently weaken their resistance of colonial exploitation.

Prof. Mukhia shed light on another notion in history which believes that modernity is a gift from Europe. He clarified that truth which is a universal notion is plural. Truth is subjective and there can be multiple truths, not just one single truth. Similarly, there is no one history or meta-narrative. There are plural histories and plural narratives. His central argument was that all communities and nations have contributed to making of this modern world and history, no contribution is small or large, but equally salient. Thus, it is entirely possible to have plural histories from different points of views or positions of power and even margins. However, unfortunately, regimes manipulate history and don’t accord respect and space for plural histories. Only that version of history is promoted that weaves a narrative favorable to the regimes.

In a deeply polarized political context that India finds itself in, mythology assumes importance in the Indian society. Most of the times, the distinction between history and mythology is blurred deliberately to justify the narrative supported by the regime.

Prof. Mukhia argued that while mythology should not be dismissed completely as it reflects certain value system of its time and context, a distinction should be made between mythology and history which is based on verifiable facts and evidence. These facts can’t be brushed under the carpet to give prominence to mythology based on any faith. But instead how mythology dominates the popular imaginations and the reasons for the same should be studied in an academic way. This is imperative since mythology reaches a much wider audience compared to only 5% of the Indians that history reaches. Nonetheless, mythology can’t replace history.

Prof. Mukhia, as against popular belief, highlighted the role of Islam in its contribution to history writing. History writing commenced in the Arab world as an attempt to chronicle and write biography of Prophet Mohammad. It then expanded to study of societies of that time. Hijri era was followed by most and the tradition of chronicling events with dates gained prominence. Similarly, in European history too, the middle ages saw the growing power of the Church.

Thus the history in this period was written by the clergy. St. Augustine was a central figure in this history writing. He believed that the whole of the history was a single whole as opposed to the idea of plural histories given by Herodotes in his work “Histories”. Historical explanations in the middle ages were provided in terms of God’s will or providence. History during this period was a given and not subject to verification.

The principle of history writing in the middle ages changed with the advent of renaissance. Renaissance brought the notion of division of time in history and records which could be classified as primary and secondary sources. Thus history writing was not driven by God’s will but based on records which could be verified through empiricism.

There was a use of footnotes and other ways to verify the historical facts which found explanations in rationality and verification. This era witnessed the development of the science of philology and study of Roman law gained momentum. This brought about an understanding of change in the meanings of words in different historical contexts and the evolution of laws.

History thus saw an evolution through times from plural histories in ancient times to history written by clergy class and mostly viewed as driven by God’s will. This changed with renaissance which grounded history in facts and empiricism. The notions of history kept changing. But one of the primary take away from Prof. Mukhia’s lecture was there are plural histories- each one has history.

Does that then mean that history is subjective and all claims couched under the term ‘history’ can be accepted as facts? Suhas Palshikar, chair of the lecture cautioned exactly against this tendency. He emphasized that there are certain objective facts in history and these facts can’t be brushed under the carpet by placing different “histories” above them.

Each one’s history and plural histories can’t be a pretext to wish away facts. The risk he pointed out of disregarding facts is of manipulation and distortion of history which becomes a tool in the hands of the ruling to perpetuate power. The contestations playing out in our society is posing a threat to our democracy and arises out of these distortions and making it into a political capital to marginalize the vulnerable.

Prof. Palshikar explained that to ordinary citizens, history means memories. According to him, old memories are replaced by new ones in public discourse and imagination. And the new ones are meant to change narratives. He cited the examples of Mahatma Gandhi and Ambedkar. Both these historical iconic figures are being appropriated by the ruling regime to legitimize their ideology. Ambedkar, he explained is depicted as anti- Islam and pro- Hindu to further the agenda of isolating the Muslims and other minorities.

However, both Gandhi and Ambedkar stood for inclusion and rights of the marginalized. These distortions and narrative based on such distortion is robbing the citizens of the sense of their history and therefore their identity. He urged therefore that all Indians must work tirelessly to distinguish history from the distortions and subsequent narratives.

While Prof. Mukhia’s lecture’s central argument was that history is used to legitimize power by regimes, he also argued that history also legitimizes the challenges that are posed to regimes and the ensuing struggles. The Indian freedom struggle is one such example. History becomes a site of contestation between the oppressed and the oppressor. History written from the margins against oppression and exploitation has inspired the world for justice.

History, according to Prof. Mukhia, is not merely confined to classrooms and academic writings but also includes popular history constructed through folklore, poetry, theatre, cinema etc. There are plural histories and it must be acknowledged that each contributes to enrich our art, sciences, and societies. This is a very pertinent message given the current socio-political context in India where distorted historical narratives are used to spread hatred, stereotypes and majoritarianism.

The engaging lecture by Prof. Mukhia and the sharp remarks by the Chair, Prof. Suhas Palshikar struck a chord with the audience because they reflected the contemporary concerns facing India today and how history has assumed centrality in establishing hegemony by the ruling dispensation. But the lecture equally touched the audience because it inspired them to look at history as a means to also legitimize the struggle to resist oppression and marginalization. It was a commentary that history which was once dominated by faith and interpreted in terms of God’s will has evolved a long way to be a discipline based on rationality and empiricism. These new principles have enabled inclusion and democracy.

Thus, it is worrisome when history is time and again invoked to justify hegemony based on religious identities and distortions. This lecture made an appeal to the collective conscience to distinguish falsehoods from truth to reclaim the liberal and inclusive aspects of our history to counter hatred and othering. This perhaps was the most befitting message delivered in the memory of Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer who relentlessly contributed for peace, harmony and social justice.

In the past, Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer Memorial Lectures have been delivered by prominent scholars including Romila Thapar, Mushirul Hassan, Christophe Jaffrelot, Prabhat Patnaik and Sukhdeo Thorat.


Neha Dabhade is associated with Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, Mumbai. All opinions and views expressed in columns and blogs and comments by readers are those of individual writers and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Caravan Daily.


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