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Does India Have History? Does History Have India?

  • Thomas R. Trautmann (a1)

It was the unanimous opinion of the early Orientalists of British India that India had no history, at least in the sense of historical writings. Like every consensus, it contained many variations of detail, as we shall see, but as the view of experts it was widely influential for a long time. For example, R. C. Majumdar gave a thoughtful version of this view at the beginning of the multivolume History and Culture of the Indian People (Majumdar 1951) by Indian scholars, published shortly after independence. But the consensus was eroded by the rise of what we may call the “colonial knowledge” paradigm, which asserted a close connection between European rule and European knowledge of India. It tended to discredit the old consensus and to lighten the specific gravity of Orientalist knowledge, simplifying it as an object of historical explanation. This development has cleared an opening, in recent decades, for a rush of new studies tending to create an opposing consensus, that India did have history of a kind, it being the task of scholars to explicate what kind, exactly, that was (for example, Pathak 1966; Warder 1972; Thapar 1992; Wagoner 1993; Ali, ed. 1999; Narayana Rao, Shulman, and Subrahmanyam 2001; Guha 2004; Mantena 2007). This in itself has been very much to the good, by reopening questions that had been closed by the old consensus. The old consensus itself, by contrast, was dismissed without much examination, and was attributed to colonial interest, cultural misunderstanding, or insufficient grasp of Indian languages and literatures. The old consensus now is seen as a simple ideological projection, easily explained and dismissed, with little complexity or interest for historical investigation. But this simplifying action of the prevailing paradigm renders invisible some of the very real effects of the old consensus, effects whose explanation can be very valuable to us. In order to gain the benefit it holds we have to take it seriously, trying both to explain it historically and to decide whether or in what way it is true.

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