The Heavy History of Names: On Political Forgetting and Erasure in India
From This Year's Cundill History Prize Shortlisted Title The Loss of Hindustan by Manan Ahmed Asif
What happened to Hindustan? The Portuguese, Dutch, British, and French who visited, settled in, and conquered the subcontinent since the 16th century used Estado da Índia, Nederlands Voor-Indië, British India, or Établissements français dans l’Inde to denote their colonial holdings.
Often their maps depicting these settlements labeled parts of the subcontinent as “Mogor” or “Mogul India” to refer to the major native polity of the Mughals. In these renderings, it was explained that the Mughals, who claimed to be the kings of all the kings in southern peninsular Asia from the 16th century down to the 19th century, were called Shahanshah-i Hindustan (emperors of Hindustan).
Hence, until the late 18th century, Hindoostan or Indostan was regularly embossed in cartouches on colonial maps. The European travelogues, histories, philological works, operas, and plays that wanted to signal their authenticity or knowledge of “Oriental languages” would also use this same word, with its varied spellings, as the “local” name of the subcontinent.The erasure of the precolonial idea of Hindustan has meant that it is taken as a truism that there was no coherent concept of peninsular India before British domination.
Yet, in the early 19th century, the word Hindustan begins to fade from the colonial archive. The major histories of the subcontinent, written in the early parts of the 19th century, were now histories of “British India.” With the British East India Company (BEIC) ascendant, the Maratha or the Sikh polities did not invoke Hindustan in their political claims. There was a brief last resurgence of Hindustan in 1857. The rebels and revolutionaries who opposed BEIC rule rallied to the flag of the Mughal king, Bahadur Shah Zafar. He was, once again, hailed as the Shahanshah-i Hindustan—clearly there remained an idea of Hindustan.
After violently crushing the revolution, Queen Victoria took British India under her direct rule and assumed the title of Empress of India, sending Bahadur Shah Zafar to die in exile in Burma. His contemporary the poet Mirza Ghalib recognized the momentous change in the fate of the subcontinent with this verse: “Hindustan sayah-i gul pa-e takht tha / jah-o-jalal-i ʿahd-e visal-e butan nah puchh” (Hindustan was the shadow of a rose at the foot of the throne / the grandeur, the splendor of that age of union with the gods, don’t ask!). And so, per Ghalib, Hindustan became the past.
Yet, Hindustan lingered even after the formal end of the Mughal polity and the entrenchment of colonial British India. The people of the subcontinent continued to be called, and called themselves, Hindustani. The early 20th century world encountered Hindustanis who were taken as indentured labor to the Caribbean and the Americas or who traveled on their own to Europe. North Americans experienced “Hindustanee” students, activists, and lawyers who came to California and Vancouver and rallied against imperial Britain.
This glimmer of Hindustan as an idea of anti-colonial politics was also present in the sub-continent. It was the idea behind the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association, created by anti-colonial revolutionaries like Chandrashekhar Azad and Bhagat Singh in 1928. It emerged in a slogan asserting independence as Jai Hindustan ki (Victory to Hindustan)—the rallying cry for Subhas Chandra Bose’s Free Hind Army in 1942. Later, when the Republic of India issued its first postage stamp on August 15, 1947, the day of independence, it depicted the tricolor flag, with Emperor Ashoka’s dharma chakra, and Bose’s anti-colonial slogan, shortened to Jai Hind. Many of these ideas of Hindustan are now lost in the mists of time.
Over these many decades since the Partition, the conventional understanding has calcified that Hindustan is either a simple Hindi word for “India,” an articulation of Hindu chauvinism, or, more rarely, something associated with the bygone era of the Mughal polity—itself understood by the Hindu Indian as a demonstration of the imperial violence of foreigners.What was the idea of Hindustan? When did it come about and what made it powerful enough to persist for nearly 1000 years? What role did it play in organizing ideas of place, of history, of community?
The erasure of the precolonial idea of Hindustan has meant that it is taken as a truism that there was no coherent concept of peninsular India before British domination. What is nominally understood by this is that the British were the first to control or claim the entire territory of the southern peninsula. In this line of telling, the subcontinent before British colonization was an age of “regional kingdoms” with no coherent notion of territoriality nor the political control over the entire peninsula. The only noted exceptions are of Ashoka, from the third century BCE, whose realm included Kabul, or the Mughal king Aurangzeb, who extended Mughal rule in and beyond the Deccan in the late 17th century.
Such conventional wisdom, these historiographic truths, are mistaken. Certainly, the Mughals did not create the concept of Hindustan. There already existed an idea that Hindustan was a place of territorial integrity that encompassed the entire subcontinent, and that diverse communities of believers lived in this place.
Take as a small illustration this Persian inscription from 1325 found in a step well in Batiyagarh, Madhya Pradesh, in Central India.
In the reign of king Ghiyathuddin wa-Dunya
the foundation of this auspicious edifice was laid
May such a king live as long as this world lasts
Because in his reign, the rights of none are lost
In Hindustan all are grateful for his justice
In Turkistan all are fearful of his supremacy.
Here Hindustan is depicted as a political collective (all who recognize the king’s justice) and as unique (distinct from the land of the Turks), long before the Mughal imperium. Clearly, there is more to the story of Hindustan.
This book is animated by a set of simple questions: What was the idea of Hindustan? When did it come about and what made it powerful enough to persist for nearly 1000 years? What role did it play in organizing ideas of place, of history, of community? These questions are straightforward, but they are frustratingly difficult to answer.How does one, then, write the history of something that is not even realizable as missing or cannot even be fully articulated?
To study the erasure of concepts or ideas is a difficult task, especially when it happens gradually and when the erased concepts are replaced by some hegemonic or majoritarian truth. What was the name of “America” before the settler colonials arrived? Can we even imagine how to answer that question? Even when we can understand that “America” or “Australia” is an erasure of precolonial naming and being and we can understand that the indigenous peoples of the “Americas” were not “Indians,” we let these labels persist. We are thus content with the convention that while Pakistan came into being in 1947, “India” was something that stretches back to an “ancient” period. That is to say, “Early Pakistan” or “Early Bangladesh” seem incongruous, but “Early India” a seemingly unproblematic periodization.
This is puzzling, since there is critical engagement with “South Asia” as a 20th-century geopolitical toponym. What remains remarkably absent from such debates is the idea of Hindustan. How does one, then, write the history of something that is not even realizable as missing or cannot even be fully articulated? Colonization refuses the colonized access to their own past. By imposing a colonial language, it retards the capacity of indigenous languages to represent reality. It claims that the languages of the colonized lack “technical” or “scientific” vocabulary. It removes the archives, renders history as lack, blurs faces and names.
Thus, the colonized face a diminished capacity to represent their past in categories other than those given to them in a European language, or provided to them in an imperial archive. This rupture, brought about by the colonial episteme, erases the fuller memory or awareness of the precolonial. Now, a “translated” term for an indigenous concept is deemed sufficient to stand in for it by an academy more inclined to maintain citational coherence than the truth of history. The discipline of history, itself a colonizing tool, is resistant to the demands of the colonized.
When there is no disciplinary recognition that something has been erased, the history of a concept must first deal with the act of political forgetting. Political forgetting superimposes the present over the past such that all the conveniences and prejudices of the present overshadow the complexities and lived-in realities of the past. Political forgetting is an ongoing process that happens in the shadow of the inventions of origins.
Take, for instance, the efforts by the Republic of India to reclaim street or city names at first given by the British: Bombay to Mumbai in 1995, Calcutta to Kolkata in 2001. More recently, the reclamation has turned to the Mughal: the city founded as Allahabad (or Illahabad to its residents) by the emperor Jalaluddin Akbar in 1583, which is at the confluence of the Ganga and Yumna Rivers, was changed to Prayagraj by the elected government of the province in 2018. Now, Allahabad is a colonial word, and the Mughals a colonizing force.
Such political forgetting is not unique to India in the subcontinent. We can look to Pakistan, where few contemporary Pakistanis recall that there was once something called “East Pakistan.” The state of Pakistan has erased from its textbooks and its official narratives any indication of the existence of an eastern wing to its territory. Few Pakistanis connect the country of Bangladesh with a nation born out of Pakistani violence against the people of East Bengal in 1971. In order to imagine a Hindu-only Republic of India or non-Bengali Islamic Republic of Pakistan, the project of political forgetting targets minorities to deprive them of history, of the right to narrate, of the capacity for recognition in the collective. One is reminded of Walter Benjamin’s warning that “even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.”
Political forgetting is an act of writing history. The political forgetting that this book explores concerns the idea of Hindustan. I am interested in Hindustan as an object of historical study, that is, Hindustan as the active or passive subject of history writing. There is the political forgetting that is understood via the study of how Europe worked to erase Hindustan in its own practices of history writing. Under the guise of a purported universalism—the field of world history—it stripped “Hindustan” from geography and supplanted it with another concept, “India.”
The colonial episteme collected, archived, organized, and excerpted textual and material forms to create histories of India. By “colonial episteme” I mean a domain of knowledge constituted beginning in the 16th century by the Portuguese, French, Dutch, German, and British about the subcontinent. Europe’s making of “India” itself as a geography, and the ways in which historical change takes place in that geography, is the first and necessary act of political forgetting of Hindustan. In order to describe the idea of “Hindustan,” I simultaneously show the construction of the idea of “India.” Keeping the colonial episteme in view foregrounds the work of history writing and shared assumptions and ideas across genealogies of knowledge production.
Parallel to the colonial story is the history of the histories of Hindustan. The idea of Hindustan, as a political and spatial concept, was in the works of history written between the 10th and the 18th centuries. These are the Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit or Prakrit, and later Urdu sources in which the peninsular subcontinent is imagined, described, and peopled as Hindustan. This is the story of Hindustan that disappears under colonial works of history.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me pause and walk through these concerns and claims one at a time. Let me begin with a telling of the fractious ideas about Hindustan from the beginning of the 20th century and how they shaped the political forgetting that is our contemporary moment.
I then turn to the work of history in this loss of Hindustan as an idea. To do so I delve into the first and most consequential European History of Hindustan by Alexander Dow in 1768, which defined early modern and colonial history writing on the subcontinent. In this discussion of the constitution of European history and the field of the philosophy of history, we see the instruments of the erasure of Hindustan.
Next, I introduce the monumental history by Muhammad Qasim Firishta written in the early 17th century, upon which the European histories on India relied. It remains the singular most important history of Hindustan inside and outside the subcontinent. This Persian history, and its own intellectual genealogy, constitutes the bedrock—a sedimentation—for this book.
Excerpted from The Loss of Hindustan: The Invention of India, by Manan Ahmed Asif. Copyright © 2021. Available from Harvard University Press.