Losing Hindustan

Book review. The Loss of Hindustan: The Invention of India, Manan Ahmed Asif.

The first time somebody called me a Hindustani was in 2004, in a small village in Pahang on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, not far from the tropical Malayan rainforest, not far from the warm waters of the South China Sea.

“Asal dari mana?”, where are your origins, a middle-aged Malay man asked. I was twenty-seven then and, having grown up in neighbouring Singapore, an equally race-conscious country, was well accustomed to such interrogations. They usually reflected earnest attempts to understand ancestry and culture, yet to be blemished by the snarky “Where are you from?” inquisitions of this nativist zeitgeist.

“Orang India”, an Indian.
But you don’t look Indian. Indians have darker skin.
My dad is from the south, my mum is from the north; she has lighter skin.
From the north? Oh, you are Hindustani.

“Indian” to “Hindustani” is the identity switch that makes me comprehensible to some Malaysians. For them, the Indian is a dark-skinned South Indian, whose ancestors were likely carted off by the British to work as rubber tappers, clerks or teachers in Malaya. The Indian usually speaks Tamil and eats curried rice off a banana leaf.

The Hindustani, by contrast, is to them a much rarer species: a lighter-skinned north Indian, from the land closer to Pakistan and the other “-stans”, of tandoori chicken and naans, and of the beloved Bollywood films starring the Khans, which were being beamed into my Malay host’s home via a rooftop satellite dish whose signal strength plummeted during the monsoons. (He failed, much to his frustration, to bond over Hindi music with this anglicised ignoramus.)

Perceptions of “Hindustanis” have evolved over millennia in the Malay world, likely well before the Buddhist Srivijaya kingdom first emerged in the seventh century. Remnants of “Hindustani” culture are found, among other places, in the wayang kulit shadow plays that riff off the Ramayana and in the Sanskrit-influenced language, like in Singapore, “Singa-pura”, lion city.

The Hindustani label, which I subsequently judiciously deployed and owned, led to many eureka moments in my travels around Malaysia. I sometimes said that my dad is Indian and my mum Hindustani.

A decade later the Hindustani label was stripped from my patchwork of identities by a disbelieving Meitei youth in Manipur, a state in India’s Northeast, a region that, depending on your perspective, is restive, neglected and/or charming. Manipur is one of four Indian states that border Myanmar.

Unlike Malays, whose interactions with the Indian heartland have long been tempered by distance, the Tibeto-Burman Meiteis, Manipur’s dominant tribe, have for centuries had a ringside seat to the Great Power perturbations in the neighbourhood, as the Burmese, British, Chinese and Indians have fought over their bucolic hillside perch. (Less “ringside seat” than “punching bag”, Meitei nationalists might argue.)

Yet following the decision by King Pamheiba in the early 1700s to make Hinduism the official religion, and Manipur’s gradual post-independence absorption into the Indian federation, achieving statehood in 1972, the arc of Meitei identity seems to be slowly, grudgingly, bending towards India.

Which is probably why, as we sat in a bare room whose flickering light bounced off the image of Shiva’s blue body, the cool night air scented by the Manipuri grass burning in the chillum being passed around, this young man’s bloodshot eyes stared into mine as if confronted by a time-travelling oddity.

“Hindustan se?”, from Hindustan?, he asked.
Ya.
“Hindustan se?!?”
Ya.

Then why doesn’t he speak Hindi, he asked my interlocutors, repeatedly, making them shift uncomfortably in their cross-legged positions, their weight rolling from one buttock to the other.

He’s from Hindustan via Singapore, they tried at first, in a bit of genealogical sorcery that made me wonder if I am also from Ethiopia via Hindustan. Then they settled on “Hindustan se, Hindi nehi”, From Hindustan, no Hindi, whose poetic metre triggered bursts of laughter.

It was an insufficient dodge. The Doubting Meitei persisted.

And so I gave up any claim to Hindustan. I am just Singaporean, I declared.

This was not a common experience during my three trips to Manipur. Most are familiar, possibly through YouTube beamed onto tiny screens via almost-free data, with the legions of non-vernacular speaking Indians around the world: the brown people, desis, curries, whatever we’re called.

Yet in that one moment I may have embodied the lie.

The Meiteis, like many other minorities in India, have been told to assimilate, to embrace Hindi and Hinduism for the sake of some Hindustan vision, one increasingly crafted by the Hindu right. But even as they have allowed aspects of Indian mainland culture to supplant their indigenous Meitei one, there was I, a Hindustani by looks, who had effectively opted out.

Why shouldn’t they?

The majority of Meiteis, Manipur’s dominant tribe, adhere to Vaishnavism, of Lord Vishnu, symbolised by the U-shaped tilak on the forehead. Yet theirs is a syncretic Hinduism, which incorporates indigenous Sanamahi animism, including reverence for Pakhangba, a dragon god. Credit for this and top photo: Kirit Kiran.
Manipur’s cultural hybridity is evident in its sumptuous thali, which combines Indian staples like yellow lentils with more Southeast Asian ingredients like lotus root and fermented bamboo shoots and fish. Credit: Kirit Kiran.

In The Loss of Hindustan: The Invention of India, Manan Ahmed Asif, a history professor at Columbia University, argues that before the arrival of Europeans in the late fifteenth century to India, there already existed a concept of Hindustan markedly different to the one that later emerged during British colonialism.

Asif’s thesis is grounded in a close reading of native historians from around 1000 CE to 1900 CE. Foremost of these is Firishta, a Shia historian of the Deccan sultanates, who in the late 1500s began work on a seminal history of India, the Tarikh-i Firishta.

Relying on a multitude of historical and theological texts, from the Mahabarata to the Quran, Firishta provides “a unified history of Hindustan, stretching back through Noah and Adam to the Indra. His emphasis is also on the Deccan as the center of Hindustan.”

The Deccan sultanates were networked both with Indian Ocean sea routes and overland caravans, and “facilitated a cultural world built by the movement of diverse peoples and ideas both from outside Hindustan and within Hindustan.” The throbbing vibrancy of cities such as Goa and Hyderabad is perhaps testament to this.

Firishta’s Hindustan, then, consists of competing kingdoms jostling for power against the backdrop of a Hindustani supra-identity defined by a polyglot multiculturalism, Hindustan as a home for all faiths.

This identity, so it goes, was recognised by historians and kings, from the ostensibly magnanimous (e.g. Akbar) to the savage (e.g. Mahmud of Ghazni), as it shaped the cities and lives under them. Firishta’s history “always has agents and protagonists who act according to their personal foibles and predilections and not due to grand forces of ideology or religion.”

This broad identity, Asif says, was lost over centuries of European interaction to a vision of Hindustan defined by the pre-eminence of Hinduism.

According to this newer colonial concept, India had a five-thousand year history that could neatly be divided into two. First, a Golden Age, epitomised by Emperor Ashoka and “which featured a majestic Hindu polity and monumental Sanskrit epics”. Later, a Dark Age characterised by medieval Muslim invader kings such as Mahmud of Ghazni.

Enlightened British rule, in this telling, would liberate Hindustanis from despotic Muslim rule and propel them towards liberal modernity.

The colonial effort to define Hindustan in terms of “five thousand years of unchanging Hindu society” effectively reduced other faiths, including Christianity and Islam, to the peripheries of the Hindustan imagined community. This religiously fractured identity, Asif argues, has since persisted, feeding colonial classifications, partition, and contemporary Hindutva-fuelled majoritarianism.

But what was the turning point? When did this colonial reimagination of Hindustan begin?

Asif points to the translation of Firishta’s work in 1768 by Alexander Dow, an Orientalist writer and officer with the East India Company (EIC). Dow’s translations became the epistemological bedrock of Hindustan studies for generations of colonialists, philosophers and historians, including Kant, Hegel, and Voltaire.

Yet their scholarly foundations were weak, Asif argues. Dow was intrinsically skeptical of Firishta’s methods, for instance the latter’s inclusion of the Mahabharata as a historical source. So instead of just offering a translation, Dow appended to it his own essays, paratextual works that “made clear to the people of Great Britain how they were to read the history that they had purchased.”

Having lived in India for less than a decade, Dow felt equipped to pre-empt the native Firishta’s work with his own ruminations about Hindu culture. He transformed Firishta’s history of place and geography into one of invaders and conquests. “This was the first comprehensive history of Hindustan in English, and it profoundly changed the practice of history writing in Europe.”

Dow and his intellectual descendants armed the children of The Enlightenment with the rationalist, Orientalist lens they needed to interpret the world and justify colonial enterprise.

The Loss of Hindustan is, more than anything, an interrogation into Asif’s own discipline. He invites the reader to peel back the layers of colonial Hindustan historiography, its “methodological and analytical assumptions”, predicated on the possible biases and instrumentalist techniques of colonial historians. “I would like to show how we know the precolonized is shaped irrevocably by the colonial knowledge-making machinery.”

Manan Ahmed Asif, author of The Loss of Hindustan | Image courtesy Harvard University Press

Asif concludes with a call to arms, for “historians, artists, activists, and thinkers” to “imagine ways forward that do not yield to the majoritarian present”. He says it is our “collective responsibility to speak against the conformism of prejudice.” Yet he fails to rouse me from the dread and depression in which he has drowned me.

As a writer one is constantly building on the research of those who came before. But if Dow did indeed spark some intellectual mutation, sending generations of thinkers down some false pathway, then how exactly do we parse and appreciate their corpus of work?

Yes, history must be revised, and yes, sources vetted. But at moments like this the burden of responsibility for all of us operating in post-colonial environments and in colonial languages can seem crushing.

All the more so when the colonial narratives have been so comprehensively utilised by post-colonial projects. Many people, Asif says—including Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Pakistan’s first governor-general; Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, social reformer and architect of India’s constitution; and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, activist and architect of the Hindutva ideology—had internalised “the colonial argument about Muslim foreignness” in their support of partition.

Dow’s intellectual scaffolding props up, in some tiny way, modern Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, and their mutual animosities. The EIC valorised Dow for its own vested interests; as did the post-colonialists, if only subconsciously, for theirs.

Indeed it is not entirely clear why Asif’s thesis should be called the “Loss” rather than The Evolution of Hindustan. Surely there were competing visions of Hindustan before and during Firishta’s time. Abu’l-Fazl ibn Mubarak, grand vizier of Akbar, the Mughal emperor, in 1590 wrote that Hindustan extended to Malaysia, Aceh and even the Maluku islands, near Papua.

The expansive view of “Hindustan” can, much like Shashi Tharoor’s description of Hinduism, be so broad and universal that it becomes difficult to delineate its contours, to articulate its meaning. Perhaps anybody can be “Hindustan se”. It is certainly testament to the fungibility of the Indian identity that Italy-born Sonia Gandhi and Hawaii-born Tulsi Gabbard can reasonably lay claim to Indianness.

Yet their cheery acceptance into the fold is surely dependent on their Hindu faith. The percentage of Hindus in India has declined from over 84% in 1951 to under 80% today. Though but a gentle drop, it is the existential threat that energises the Hindu vanguard.

With the BJP’s Hindutva agenda buoyed by an overwhelming democratic majority and increasingly pliant institutions, and with nativist movements elsewhere in the ascendancy, it appears as if the next chapter of “Hindustan” may involve greater cultural and linguistic uniformity.

Efforts to engineer this, from lockdowns in Kashmir to shakedowns in Assam, may become more pronounced, especially if Congress, limp and rudderless, gets dragged right to embrace a “soft Hindutva”.

Maybe the central tragedy revealed by Asif’s work—not a new deduction, yet insightful in its method—is that Hindustan could easily have evolved to be a beacon of multiculturalism for the world.

Indeed, perhaps The Loss of Hindustan is itself a symptom of India’s rightward shift. One wonders if Asif would have felt compelled to research the topic had the Hindu right not been as influential today, not as assertive in its attempts to recast history, for instance vis-a-vis the Indo-Aryan migration theory.

Asif’s work belongs to the broad academic tradition that seeks to dismantle the communal vision of Indian society. The destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992 catalysed the movement and nurtured its audience.

One thinks of Phillip Wagoner describing the Hindu kings of Vijayanagara dressed in Islamic garb (1996), Richard Eaton demystifying temple desecrations (2000) and Audrey Truschke arguing that Aurangzeb was not as maniacally anti-Hindu as many believe (2017). Asif’s previous book, A Book of Conquest: The Chachnama and Muslim Origins in South Asia, challenges the interpretation of the Chachnama, a thirteenth-century Persian text, as a book of conquest.

The point here is that in the writing of this book—and indeed, in my very reading—we are all, collectively, responding to, and reproducing, the cultural and economic diktats of the market; not unlike Alexander Dow at the EIC. Might Asif himself be exposed as a biased operative in three hundred years?

Asif’s work also hints at the disjoint between official narratives and ground realities, between highfalutin theories of identity and the lived experiences of inhabitants. It is unclear if the subjects of the Deccan sultanates saw themselves as “Hindustan se”, even as Firishta described their rich world.

It is similarly unclear, away from the headline-grabbing activities such as the gau raksha cow vigilantes—tragic as they are—how conceptions of Hindustan among Indians today are being influenced by the political machinations and Hindutva-inspired rhetoric of Narendra Modi’s BJP.

It can appear like a daily struggle. On October 12th Tanishq, a jewellery brand of the Tata Group, yanked a forty-five-second YouTube ad that showed a Muslim family organising a Hindu baby shower for their Hindu daughter-in-law. Tanishq did so, it said, after a social media uproar revealed “hurt sentiments”.

Nothing enlivens the Hindu right as much as the idea that Muslim men are engaging in “love jihad” in order to convert the country. Thus it is plausible that the #BoycottTanishq movement is largely the work of Hindutva-inspired social media trolls; indeed many Indians cheered the cultural diversity recognised by the ad.

And perhaps therein lies the source of optimism in this story. Being Hindustani is not something that can be imposed purely from above. It is, like any identity or tribe, something that is reified daily through our interactions. There is an agency here that every individual must locate and promote.

For those of us who believe in an open, inclusive Hindustan—one in which Hindi and Hinduism do not necessarily dominate—we have a responsibility to embody that vision wherever we are.

That might mean telling a Malay man that it’s great if he wants to sing Hindi songs; or telling a Meitei man that it’s fine if he doesn’t.


With much thanks to Koh Choon Hwee for her superb feedback.

This piece was first published in the November 2020 issue of The Mekong Review. Please subscribe to the review here. Hard and/or soft copy available. It is one of the few great South-east Asian publications around, which has made it through a tumultuous 2020. Do support it.


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3 thoughts on “Losing Hindustan

  1. Too rich in details for millennials who are so into 30 sec sound bite
    Intellectually too much for western historians to comprehend.
    More likely for a thesis for any PHD candidate
    Good luck
    Stay safe

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