The issues discussed by nationalist historians writing on the modern period

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Nationalist historical writing contributed to the self- confidence, self-assertion and a certain national pride which enabled Indian people to struggle against colonialism especially in the face of denigration of India’s past and the consequent inferiority complex promoted by colonial writers. Nilkanth Shastri and other historians also helped overcome the regional bias – the bias of treating India as coterminous with the Indo-Genetic plane.

In this respect, as in many others, nationalist historical writing in India became a major unifying factor so far as the literate Indians were concerned. Nationalist historiography flourished mainly in dealing with the ancient and medieval periods. It hardly existed for the modern period and came into being mainly after 1947, no school of nationalist historians of modern India having existed before 1947.

This was in part because, in the era of nationalism, to be a nationalist was also to be anti-imperialist, which meant confrontation with the ruling, colonial authorities. And that was not possible for academics because of colonial control over the educational system. It became safe to be anti-imperialist only after

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1947. Consequently, a history of the national movement or of colonial economy did not exist. This is, of course, not a complete explanation of the absence of nationalist historiography before 1947. After all, Indian economists did develop a sharp and brilliant critique of the colonial economy of India and its impact on the people. A detailed and scientific critique of colonialism was developed in the last quarter of the 19th century by non-academic, nationalist economists such as Dadabhai Naoroji, Justice Ranade, G. V. Joshi, R. C. Dutt, K. T. Telang, G. K. Gokhale and D. E. Wacha. Several academic economists such as’ K. T. Shah, V. C. Kale, C. N. Vakil, D. R. Gadgil, Gyan Chand, V.K.R.V. Rao and Wadia and Merchant followed in their footsteps in the first half of the 20th century. Their critique did not find any reflection in history books of the period.

That was to happen only after 1947, and that too in the 1960s and after. This critique, however, formed the core of nationalist agitation in the era of mass movements after 1920. Tilak, Gandhiji, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel and Subhash Bose, for example, relied heavily upon it. A few historians who referred in passing to the national movement and nationalist historians after 1947 did not see it as an anti-imperialist movement. Similarly, the only history of the national movement that was written was by nationalist leaders such as R.G. Pradhan, A.C. Mazumdar, Jawaharlal Nehru and Pattabhi Sitaramayya. Post-1947 historians accepted the legitimacy of nationalism and the Indian national movement but seldom dealt with its foundation in the economic critique of the colonialism. They also tended to underplay, when not ignoring completely, other streams of the nationalist struggle.

Modern historians have also been divided between those, such as Tara Chand, who held that India has been a nation-in-the-making since the 19th century and those who argue that India has been a nation since the ancient times. At the same time, to their credit, all of them accept India’s diversity, i.e., its multi-lingual, multi-religious, multi-ethnic, and therefore multi-cultural character.

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Nationalist historians also have ignored or severely underplayed inner contradictions of Indian society based on class and caste or the oppression of and discrimination against women and tribes. They have also ignored the movements against class and caste oppressions. They have seldom made an in-depth analysis of the national movement, and often indulged in its blind glorification.

While adopting a secular position and condemning communalism, they do not make a serious analysis of its character. Quite often, it is seen merely as an outcome of the British policy of ‘divide and rule’. They give due space to the social reform movements but do not take a critical look at them, and often ignore the movements of the tribal people and the lower castes for their emancipation.

As a whole, historians neglected economic, social and cultural history and at the most attached a chapter or two on these without integrating them into the main narrative. They tended to ignore inner contradictions within Indian society. They suffered from an upper caste and male chauvinist cultural and social bias.

Above all they tended to accept the theory of Indian exceptionalism that Indian historical development was entirely different from that of the rest of the world. They missed a historical evaluation of Indian social institutions in an effort to prove India’s superiority in historical development. Especially negative and harmful both to the study of India’s history and the political development of modern India were their acceptance of James Mill’s periodisation of Indian history into Hindu and Muslim periods.

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