‘Colonial rule brought end to Hindustan, created India’

Historian Dr Manan Ahmed says colonial powers shaped the ways history of subcontinent continues to be taught

Our Correspondent January 25, 2023


The term Hindustan denotes the shared culture, values, tastes, music and dance of diverse communities living in a geographical space over an expanded period of time, said historian Dr Manan Ahmed.

India is not an English translation of Hindustan, rather creation of colonial rule, he said at a lecture on his book The Loss of Hindustan: The Invention of India held at the Institute of Business Administration (IBA) City Campus.

IBA Executive Director Dr S Akbar Zaidi introduced Columbia University Associate Professor Dr Manan Ahmed, who is a historian of South Asia and the littoral western Indian Ocean world from 1000-1800 CE.

He is also the author of A Book of Conquest: Chachnama and Muslim Origins in South Asia published by Harvard University Press.

Commencing the session, Dr Ahmed spoke about how the colonial state went about creating and archive a history for Hindustan in the mid-18th century.

The project of amassment and archiving undertaken by European colonial powers shaped the ways in which history of the subcontinent could be imagined, researched or written into the 21st century.

Speaking about the history of the idea of Hindustan, the speaker opined that some people call it a civilization, some associate it with music, and some relate it with dance or the Ganga-Jamuna culture.

The Loss of Hindustan is the history of an idea, a concept. Writing the history of any creative construction is predicated on the type of sources one can assemble, "but it becomes difficult if our contemporary nationalisms are based on the idea of forgetting."

Dr Ahmed highlighted three things in his talk, the history of space, rendition and amassment, and decolonising history.

He explained that the problem with the philosophy of history is that it is tied to the nation-state. To resolve the issue, he selected a historian, Muhammad Qasim Firishta, who was writing in the early 17th century and contemplated, what did Firishta think about the philosophy of history? How did he think things happened?

Through reading someone from the early 17th century, Dr Ahmed hoped to figure out the ways in which history writing can be given a genealogy that is not determined solely by Europe.

Dr Ahmed said his book ends with the loss of Hindustan, which was the period between 1904 and 1908. He said that we think that India is the English translation of Hindustan but that is incorrect as India is a concept in its own.

The concept of India traces back to 1786, by philologist William Jones who had mentioned Nagri (letters), the Hindu religion and India.

In retrospect, this is the colonial construction of India and how Hindustan's concept was erased by the British and then by nationalism.

Elaborating the writings of Firishta, the speaker said that the historian had made some important contributions as he had written about the history of a concept defined as Hindustan And hence Tarikh-i-Firishta is one of the most important documents from the subcontinent.

Developing Hazrat Amir Khusrau's thoughts, Firishta believed that the people of Hindustan have a common relationship with language, food, neighbours and the community in general.

He believed that people could have different languages and still communicate with each other using a common language.

By defining the concept, Firishta gave a vocabulary that was later widely used by British historians. The lecture culminated with an engaging Q&A session.


Published in The Express Tribune, January 25th, 2023.


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