What do historians think about Saif Ali Khan's "no concept of India before the British" statement?
Asiaville spoke to some real historians to understand the debate and decode the "concept of India"
A lot has been said on and about Saif Ali Khan's suggestion in a recent interview that the concept of India was defined by the British. Speaking to Film Companion, the superstar who claimed to be a history buff, said that what was shown in his film 'Tanhaji: The unsung hero' is "not history as he is quite aware of the history." But Khan rattled some netizens and a BJP MP, when he said that "There was no concept of India, till perhaps the British gave it one."
Thousands of tweets surfaced either ridiculing his knowledge of history or trying to connect him and his ancestors to Pakistan. Some even accused him of only caring about his stardom and his films, and not politics and history.
Unlike Dumbo Deepika, #SaifAliKhan waited for #Tanhaji to become a hit before revealing his ugly face— Archie (@archu243) January 19, 2020
Another radical izlamist exposes his bigotry
Taimur Ali Khan ke abba se yehi umeed thi ????pic.twitter.com/eweImKene1
Yes, #SaifAliKhan is right. The concept of India was forced by Britishers who rules us. It was earlier BharatVarsh, which has a great history associated with the Great Ashoka.— Naren Charan (@NarenCharan) January 20, 2020
Some people just want to be politically correct, not historical correct. Shame!! pic.twitter.com/Irbs7h7YY2
This is something...Saif Ali Khan’s uncles are top officers of Pakistan’s ISI; he‘s made films asserting global terrorism is a “Zionist conspiracy”; his wife Kareena said Saif is a history buff and then they name their child after a mass killer; now this ????pic.twitter.com/q5PrQM3iCr— Rajeev Mantri (@RMantri) January 19, 2020
This debate became bigger when BJP MP Meenakshi Lekhi took a potshot at the actor for naming his youngest son Taimur.
Even Turks find Taimur a brute ! But some people choose to name their children Taimur . https://t.co/T9xX5qihAw— Meenakashi Lekhi (@M_Lekhi) January 19, 2020
But this triggered some key questions in our mind, like when did the idea of India -- like we know it today -- came into being? Or which idea of India was the actor talking about -- was it the Indian nation state or the many geographical, political and culutural expressions that have embodied 'India' in the past?
We wanted to understand if the unity of our country was a mere colonial creation or did something identifiable as 'India' exist earlier. Riddled with these questions, Asiaville reached out some historians for clarity.
"British consolidated the idea of India"
"Saif isn't wrong in saying what he said, because the idea of the nation-state that is India finds its origins in thoughts from the post-revolution west, which found manifestation through the colonial project and historiography," said Dr Rakesh Batabyal, a professor of History at the Jawaharlal Nehru University.
"A person from Nagaland or Mizoram did not identify with 'India' before the British consolidated the many communities and the freedom struggle from it. Benedict Anderson explained nation as a 'shared community', and until the British came and consolidated through their administration, there was no shared community," Batabyal added.
"British didn't even think of India as a nation"
Batabyal's arguments were refuted by Mridula Mukherjee, the Chairperson of the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. She said that it's a question of how we look at it. "In the thirteenth century, Amir Khusrau's writings mention the concept of 'Hind' as a distinct geographical entity. Even during Ashoka's time or during the Mughal period, we see 'India' existing as a cultural or political idea."
"But it'll be nonsense to say that there was an idea of India as a nation-state before the colonial period. There were many Indias earlier, but the idea of a nation as such comes with the freedom struggle. The India we know today is shaped by the thinking during the freedom struggle. Burma, which was a part of the British Raj, was not seen as a part of India by our forefathers. So the idea of India can't be reduced to tweets by actors. It's a very complex thing," added the senior historian.
Mukherjee categorically rejected the notion that it was the British who brought the idea of the Indian nation-state. "The Britishers did not even think of India as a nation. Churchill had said that India is merely a geographical expression and that it is no more a single country than the equator. I find this discourse itself problematic. Everyone is appropriating history. From the Prime Minister claiming Ganesha's head as proof of ancient plastic surgery to Kangana Ranaut citing Mahabharata to substantiate the idea of India, it's everywhere," said Mukherjee.
"Unity of India goes way back"
Michael Danino, a guest professor at IIT Gandhinagar and a member of Indian Council of Historical Research, is of a completely different opinion. He says the unity of India can be traced long back and is a result of an ancient network of shrines and the practice of pilgrimage. He also cites the existence of "sacred geography in which mountains, rivers, trees and animals are imbued with divinity" as a reason behind the unity of India even before the British arrived.
"India and Bharatvarsha are different"
Historian Braja Dulal Chattopadhyay, on the other hand dismisses Danino's hypothesis stating that 'India' and 'Bharatvarsha' are very different ideas. Chattopadhyay says that this assumption that India also denotes Bharatvarsha is a colonial creation which was further formalised in the solemn declaration of our constitution: “India that is Bharat shall be a union of States.”
BD Chattopadhyay is of opinion that "the way the ideas of India and of Bharatavarsha were drawn upon by colonial administrations marked a definite shift from their earlier meanings in the form of a crystallisation of a mappable, concrete territorial identity thrown back into the past, and what was open-ended now became a closed, administratively defined country. This newly enclosed entity of Bharatavarsha was not only the locus of a homogeneous historical narrative; it became, in many willing hands unaware of the danger of anachronism, the seat of an India nation state".
"The British created administratative unity"
We also reached out to Mridu Rai of Presidency University with the question. She said, "the British just created political and administratative unity, but beyond that they didn't do much. They invented and re-invented traditions to create their idea of India."
After speaking to experts, there was only one conclusion we could arrive at, that it's nothing but a grave injustice to history when we reduce and generalise such a complex issue to statements taken out of context, social media trolling and misinformation. Some things are better left for experts to interpret and analyse.