Celebrated historian William Dalrymple says India is in the midst of a cultural war

Multi-award winning author says history is open for revision but there is no place for bigotry

JYXDB9 Edinburgh, UK. 20th Aug, 2017. William Dalrymple, the Scottish historian and writer, appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Credit: GARY DOAK/Alamy Live News
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“These are the tides of history — you see it everywhere, in every period of history.”

So says William Dalrymple, the Scottish scholar who has closely studied India’s colonial history for more than 20 years and wrote several award-winning bestsellers about the country.

So what about the tides of Indian history? In an interview with The National, Dalrymple explains that the country is caught in a cultural war driven by an empowered right wing, but that the “high tide of hypernationalism” sweeping across it will recede — and that cultural and religious assimilation that are characteristic of the nation's rich and complex past will ultimately prevail.

“I am pretty much hoping that it is a high tide of that kind of nationalism,” he says. “And there are signs that it is receding already in some parts of India and we will be able again to get back to a world where things are less heated.”

The partition of 1947 has in a sense never ended. In many ways, it continues even after 75 years and still haunts, especially in North India
William Dalrymple

The remarks came days after the world’s largest democracy blocked a BBC documentary critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s role in the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in the state of Gujarat, of which he was then chief minister.

They mirror fears that India’s secular ethos is waning under Mr Modi and his government’s increasingly uncomfortable and hostile attitude towards its religious minority.

Dalrymple refuses to comment on the controversy surrounding the blanket ban on the documentary and the question of the Indian government stifling freedom of speech, but he says there definitely seems to be an “upswing in religious polarisation”.

“Sadly, that is the case,” says the author, who will soon be in Dubai for the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature 2023, from February 1 to 6.

He will discuss his exhaustively researched work The Company Quartet, a collection of four books — The Anarchy, White Mughals, Return of a King and The Last Mughal — that chronicle the rise and fall of the East India Company.

The company in London ruled India before it was nationalised and taken over by the British Raj.

The challenges for a historian in modern India

Dalrymple, who is credited as being one of the most authentic voices among contemporary historians, says a cultural war is sweeping across India, making a historian’s job difficult and challenging.

He describes a zealous attempt to rewrite history and present a crude and misrepresented version of it.

“There should be discussion about history, and everything should be up for debate,” Dalrymple asserts. “It's something which I am completely at ease with.

“It is a historian’s job to debate these things, to research new facts, to dig up materials that have been neglected, and to uncover the bias of previous generations.”

But he insists, those attempts should be rooted in facts.

“It can't just be the expressions of religious bigotry, of muscular nationalism, or political opinion.

“And to rewrite the past and to have an interpretation of history imposed by political diktat is a dangerous thing for any country.

“It is unquestionable that a Marxist view of history predominated in Indian Universities for many years.

“It is also true that the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] and the BJP have long wished to rewrite that kind of history. Now, the right feels its moment has come and it's making the most of it.”

After the BJP swept to power in 2014 in a landslide victory, its ideological fountain RSS has been challenging the long-standing, left-leaning Nehruvian consensus that prevailed in much of independent India under the Congress rule.

The RSS believes that centuries of subjugation of Hindus under the Mughal and British Empire has undermined their religious identity, and calls for the assertion of Hindu pride and supremacy.

Its leaders decry the “distortion of modern history” that paints a sympathetic and romanticised account of the Mughal conquest of India, and often resort to violence to impose bans on books or movies that play into the narrative.

While Dalrymple welcomes the co-existence of different interpretations of history, he says he has a problem with the “crude binary” in the popular version where Muslim rulers are painted as bigots and bloodthirsty murderers of Hindus.

For instance, the 17th century Hindu Maratha King Shivaji is lauded as the saviour of Hindus by the right wing, and the legacy of Tipu Sultan, the 18th century Muslim ruler of Mysore in southern India, fiercely contested.

“History is more complicated than that,” Dalrymple said. “History is all about nuance and understanding the grey areas.”

He said there is a tendency among politicians to make the players of Indian history either gods or demons.

“In reality, both Tipu Sultan and Shivaji lived at a time of great instability and political violence as the Mughal Empire was breaking up. It was a time of sieges, slaughters and bloodshed.

“And it must be possible to look at history with more subtlety than to merely depict people of one religious persuasion as bigots and monsters, and people of another nationality as whiter than white gods and goddesses and patriotic heroes.”

In his books, he has at length explored the cultural and religious assimilation and military alliances that existed between the incoming Muslim Mughals of Central Asia and the Hindu Rajputs in India, and the way Hindus and Muslims together forged a composite culture.

Bollywood promoting bigotry

If history has to heal wounds and not reopen them, Dalrymple says, the subject should be approached in all of its complexity.

Instead, he laments that India’s multimillion-dollar Bollywood movie industry is distorting history and fuelling polarisation.

“What is tragic is when you see … you know, crude Bollywood films deliberately create division and parade gross stereotypes, where everyone from one religion is peaceful, kind, good and true and beautiful, and everyone in another religion is vile, violent, aggressive and terrifying.”

Dalrymple said the misrepresentation had also become the norm on national television and public debates.

He agrees that in the post-partition era, in the aftermath of the mutual genocide of partition, historians tried to airbrush some uncomfortable aspects of the Muslim invasion of India, such as destruction of many temples and monasteries.

“But now we are moving to another extreme where the entire Indo-Islamic period of 600 years is depicted almost as a sort of a non-stop Holocaust; an inferno of destruction and bloodshed, rape and pillage.

“With the growing polarisation, the culture of coexistence has been unravelled at an astonishing pace.

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93-year-old Narendra Singh Pujji. He was a college student in Pakistan and left for Delhi a few days before the land was partitioned into India and Pakistan. Victor Besa / The National

“The partition of 1947 has in a sense never ended. In many ways, it continues even after 75 years and still haunts, especially the North of India.”

The division of India and Pakistan immediately after the country gained independence from the British led to a mass migration across its borders, with communal riots claiming thousands of lives, Hindu and Muslim.

Quoting examples from history during the rule of Mughal rulers Akbar and Bahadur Shah, Dalrymple tries to drum home the point that the seemingly two estranged worlds can live in harmony.

“Hindus and Muslims lived side by side for centuries and forged a common language and literature, a common art and architecture. They visited each other's shrines and celebrates each others festivals.

“Any idea that there is a long and unbroken history of antagonism between the two great religions practised in India is unhistorical,” he says.

“Not only were there moments of peaceful cohabitation but whole periods of interwoven culture.”

In medieval Hindu texts from South India, the Sultan of Delhi is sometimes talked about as the incarnation of the god Vishnu.

In the seventeenth century, the Mughal crown prince Dara Shikoh had the Bhagavad Gita, perhaps the central text of Hinduism, translated into Persian, and composed a study of Hinduism and Islam, The Mingling of Two Oceans, which stressed the affinities of the two faiths.

“And this, it seems to be something that has sort of disappeared out the window. These are the things that people just don't know about any more.”

Updated: January 28, 2023, 7:52 AM