The Indians: Histories of a CivilisationEdited by GN Devy, Tony Joseph and Ravi Korisettar
648 pages|₹ 1200
A map of ancient India (Courtesy: The Indians, Aleph)
In history, change is both a variable and a constant. Against its backdrop, civilisations decline, transform and evolve. In India, historical narrative is—for reasons of political convenience—often confined to the medieval and the modern. Despite the magisterial (and separate from this volume) contributions of the likes of Romila Thapar and Irfan Habib, ancient (or prehistoric) Indian history is often bypassed altogether. But if one truly desires to comprehend the present, it goes without saying that one must start at the very beginning. The Indians does precisely that. Covering a massive swathe of 12,000 years—from the last Ice Age to the 21st century—The Indians is being marketed as “one of the most ambitious projects” undertaken to trace the origins, evolution and trajectory of India’s past and contemporary realities. There is no doubt that the book lives up to the promise of its ambition, divided as it is into seven sections, with contributions from over a hundred of South Asia’s foremost scholars and domain experts.
Part I opens with a sweeping study of the prehistoric Indian subcontinent, in terms of its population and climate. This is a section grounded necessarily in statistical and genetic data, explained in simple, straightforward prose by experts such as Tony Joseph, Sridhar Vajapey and Subhash Walimbe, to name a few. With the evolution of the Homo Erectus, the reader turns to Part II, which focuses on the emergence of different civilisations in the region, fuelled in their most basic form by the ‘domestication’ of plants and animals. A settlement or a civilisation—even at its most nascent—is usually characterised by its language and literature, its religions, deities and philosophies. India possesses a multitude: from Hinduism to Buddhism, from Sanskrit to Pali literature. Given the importance of language in the country’s present and past, then, Part III makes for pertinent reading, albeit a little too scholarly. Not everyone except the most etymologically inclined, after all, would stop to inquire how many different layers exist within a single Vedic text. Yet, as historian Meera Visvanathan cogently points out in her essay in this section, the historical context of a nation’s language(s) is born from a process of assimilation. “It was not,” Visvanathan writes, “always a seamless process, being also marked by contestation and conflict.” But even if the process was not seamless, it was continuous, a cog in the wheels of change that defined society and culture, from the north of India to its south, and from the northeast to the Deccan plateau. Part IV takes the reader across the country, in order to understand the evolution of Indian society and polity—in terms of its art and religion, culture and vernacular. As we emerge from the ancient to the medieval, then, there are still questions to be answered and still research to be done on many aspects of ancient Indian history—in trying to understand patterns of nomadic pastoralism (Ajay Dandekar) for instance, or gain insights into the ideology of the Indus Valley civilisation (Akinori Uesugi). But taken collectively, the reader begins to glimpse the formation of individual regional identities—which would play their own role in modern Indian history and politics.
But there is some distance to cover before that.
Parts V to VII introduce the reader to the more familiar aspects of modern Indian history: colonialism, its end and aftermath and the emergence of the Indian nation-state as we know it today. For India, the 15th to the 20th centuries were and are marked by unprecedented levels of travel, discovery, trade and a new individual and collective consciousness, born from the interaction with colonial and post-colonial ideas, ideologies and institutions. Here, too, essays like that of Pradip Datta underline history’s cycles of continuous change. Taken collectively, these sections argue that India’s real distinctiveness lay in its inherent openness to assimilate and transform—a worthy reminder in this day and age. From Urvashi Butalia to Narayani Gupta, these essays prompt the reader to recall that India’s engagement with its contemporary reality was not just in the political realm, but with the paraphernalia of modernity, from the printing press to the development of urban spaces. Gupta, for instance, reminds us that the idea of the urban space is one that has existed in our history for over five millennia. Today, of course, the word ‘urban’ is synonymous with problems like ‘illegal’ buildings and overcrowded cities and the kind of brutal commercialisation that obscures aesthetics and obliterates ecology. Himachal Pradesh provides an excellent example of what urbanisation should not be.
A settlement or a civilisation—even at its most nascent—is usually characterised by its language and literature, its religions, deities and philosophies. India possesses a multitude: from Hinduism to Buddhism, from Sanskrit to Pali literature
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Yet in a country like India, politics and political change have often been the metrics of progress. Perhaps that is why Part VI is titled (interestingly) Towards Federalism—a subject that is being debated today. In the book’s timeline, India was now standing in the doorway of the 20th century, the first half of which would be defined by revolution, war and the fall of empires across the world. There was no way that change on this scale would leave India unaffected. It was during the first half of the 20th century, then, that India—and Indians—began to think of answers to questions about citizenship, about sovereignty and identity and about what freedom from the shackles of colonialism would mean. Part VII—the final section—brings the reader into a newly post-colonial India. With essays by Amir Ali, Srinath Raghavan and Nivedita Menon, among others, this is a section that discusses a range of historic modern milestones, from Partition to the Nehruvian era, from the birth of Bangladesh to the liberalisation of the Indian economy in 1991. It also weaves in essays on the popular politics of social and economic resistance, caste, language and identity as a means to understanding how federalism works on the ground, as opposed to the legislature. The questions that confronted independent India were—and are—far more granular, often verging on the uncomfortable: from boundary demarcation and linguistic supremacy, to questions of political autonomy and the democratic devolution of state authority and legitimacy. The Constitution was always upheld as the lodestar of the values of the modern Union of India. Menon describes it as a “manifesto of a future state of affairs,” but Ali, on the other hand, points incisively to what he terms the “inherent superficiality” that undercuts democracy in India today. All too often, the vulnerabilities of the minorities and the marginalised are highlighted—but there is no effort to transform those vulnerabilities in any way. Ali’s essays—he has two in the final section—are both a sharp reminder and a call for change.
Yet it is in this final section that The Indians wavers—just a little. While it is understandable that not everything can be discussed within the covers of a single tome (and the book already stands at a formidable 600-odd pages), identity politics has been one of the lynchpins of the modern Indian state. A deeper dive into its role on how the post-colonial Indian state has wielded its power would have provided both context and continuity for some of the bloodiest markers of our time, from the anti-Sikh pogroms to the demolition of the Babri Masjid, from the riots in Godhra to the ongoing civil war in Manipur. In 2023, after all, identity politics constitutes the beating heart of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s manifesto. As for the Constitution, there is no doubt that it is the foundation on which the edifice of modern Indian democracy was built. But today, the very nature and principles of the Constitution are up for debate. As much as we need to understand our past, then, understanding the ramifications of the erosion of that past is equally necessary.
That said, The Indians is an admirable reminder of what India was and what it could be, if its layered history is studied and acknowledged in its truthful essence.