In this talk, I want to discuss the works of Meenakshi Jain, a Reader of history and political science in Delhi University. I have known Meenakshi Jain for two decades and regard her as one of the best scholars in history and political matters concerning India today. She had participated in the Swadeshi Indology 2 conference in Delhi on Sheldon Pollock and had presented a wonderful paper. We have one thing in common, in that we both have critiqued the work of Leftist people in India, who either fight us or ignore us or call us names. I hadn’t been in contact with her for many years and thought it would be a good time to catch up and we had a wonderful discussion on topics like the hold of Left-ideologues in Indian academia, Ayodhya Babri Masjid controversy, misconceptions about Sati, iconoclasm and future Swadeshi Indology areas of research.
Left-dominance of Indian academia
While discussing the prevailing scholarship in India academia during the era of the Left, which corresponds to the period of dominance of scholars like Irfan Habib and Romila Thapar, she mentions that their stranglehold on Indian academia was complete. They exercised complete control on all the funding agencies and all the students who wanted to do research had to do research under them and from their point of view. So it was very difficult for a person who did not share their ideology or way of thinking to make a mark as a historian or as a scholar. So if anybody had a different or contrarian view or wanted to chart out their own path, it was a very lonely path and they were just on their own.
The left-dominance of Indian academia started when the Congress party became a minority government. At that point, the Congress government needed coalition partners and they chose the Communist Party of India (CPI). The Left has always been very astute as far as furthering their ideological position has been concerned, and realizing the importance of education ministry as a tool for shaping specific leftist narrative of Indian history, they asked for one ministry, the Education Ministry and it was handed over to Prof. Nurul Hassan, a card holding member of the CPI. And among the first thing that Prof. Nurul Hasan did with his team, was to block out or delegitimize all historians who did not accept the leftist lens of viewing history. The contributions of a lot of eminent non-Left historians like R C Majumdar, and Jadunath Sarkar were sidelined.
For example, Jadunath Sarkar had done an extensive empirical study of the Mughal Empire in the context of Indian history by clearly delineating various aspects like administration, agriculture and so on. However the Left tried to belittle this evidence-based approach of Indian history. In a recent biography of Jadunath Sarkar the scholar is astonished to note that Irfan Habib in his book, “Agrarian System of Mughal India” does not refer to Jadunath Sarkar even once. In a sense, non-Left historians have been systematically wiped out of the pages of history, so that the Left does not have to deal with uncomfortable facts which does not suit their narrative.
For non-left scholars it is very difficult to prosper academically or get one’s papers or books published. Whichever publisher one goes to, they have to give it to reviews, and people who are known to be important whether they are good scholars or not, tend to be these kind left-leaning academics who simply kill the book. She says:
I survived for the simple reason I didn’t want any patronage from anyone. I was not looking for a job. I had a small job which was enough to see me through… I never tried because getting my books published was such a headache. Every book of mine, I think I have made a notable contribution to the subjects on which I have written but every book of mine was rejected by every publisher because the manuscript would go to Left scholars… And for example one book that was as very detailed study on Hindu-Muslim relations in the Medieval period, that was sent to a reviewer and the reviewer said this s a very serious work and it takes note of everything that has been written on the subject but I would advise the publisher to write “It is a Hindu view of Hindu-Muslim relations”. So naturally the publisher got frightened and he said “I’m very sorry, but I cannot publish it because it says Hindu view”.
I tried four publishers for four books and every person the manuscript was sent to said it’s a very serious work but it portrays just one point of view. So it was rejected. In fact on Ayodhya my manuscript was rejected by four publishing houses and it was only the intervention of Indian Archeologists who have been so actively involved in excavating that site, they actually saw it through.
The India They Saw
Meenakshi Jain has done a three volume study called “The India they saw” which presents a detailed account of foreign travelers to India from mid eighth to mid nineteenth century. These travelers came from different parts of the globe. They came from Europe, they came from China, Far East, and the Muslim world and so on. In fact there were a lot of Arab as well as Persian writers. The sources for this research were mostly works that have been translated into English, and were collected from libraries and institutes all over the world.
In almost all the accounts it is evident that the travelers held India in very high esteem. They were full of awe of what they saw in India whether it was in terms the economic vitality, the place of women in society or on the real nature of flexible two dimensional jati-varna system, which was later collapsed by the British into a hierarchical one dimensional caste system.
An Italian nobleman known as Pietro Della Valle on his first visit to India went to Southern India. After interviewing the Shah of Iran, he had travelled from Persia to India. Accompanying him was a Dubash (from do-bhashi), or an interpreter. During those days, matrilineal society was prevalent in southern regions, and Pietro learned that the ruler of the village he visited was a woman. He was informed that at that moment the lady in question was busy in supervising the digging of a trench in a field. He visited the field and found her dressed like an ordinary person and walking barefoot. But he was startled to discover that she was fully conversant with various socio-economic issues and was no less aware of such matters than the Shah of Iran.
Another thing that is very obvious from a detailed study of the writings of foreign travelers, is the high reverence of Brahmins in Indian society. This is in contrast to the mainstream narrative of a hierarchical caste system and a fractured balkanized society where Brahmins are painted as the oppressors of the so-called lower castes. Around 1766, an English Collector of Madras wanted to travel from Madras to another village which is a few hundred miles away. Since he did not want to ride a horse all that distance, he had palki bearers carry him on a palki the entire distance. When they arrived at that destination, the palki bearers were full of mud on account of the road journey. He disembarked from the palki and noted that nobody in the village was paying him any attention. They were all doing pranam to the palki bearers who were Brahmins, and held in high esteem for being the traditional custodians of Indian traditions and knowledge system. Despite having no political power they were held in very high reverence in the then Indian society.
This is a very important area of research which can lead to some startling finds that will challenge the prevailing narrative and contradict what we think today of Indian society and caste dynamics. This subject merits a panel or a serious conference on findings from original sources of foreign travelers about India, unfiltered by any specific ideology or leanings of scholars. I think this will be very interesting and an eye opener.