Social Scientist. v 24, no. 280-81 (Sept-Oct 1996) p. 3.


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ROMILA THAPAR*

The Tyranny of Labels**

In the writing of Indian history, we have become accustomed to packaging our past and identifying it with labels. Such labels, even where they may include a variety of activity and experience, tend to force interpretations into a single category so that the infinite shades of difference within them disappear. When this happens, the historical perspective comes to be governed by the tyranny of labels: a condition which requires the historical unpacking of the categories and a redefining of the contents.

I would like in this lecture to explore two of these labels: the Hindu community and the Muslim community, with particular reference to the way they are used in the writing of pre-colonial history. My intention in this exploration is both to question the validity of these as all-inclusive categories in historical analysis, and to suggest the need to analyse afresh our historical understanding of what we are referring to when we speak of Hindu and Muslim communities in history. Such labels draw on conventional religious identities, but the form so demarcated is sought to be applied to every other aspect of life, whether applicable or not. It is also used to include a vast spectrum of social groups under the single label.

The viewing of Indian history in terms of these two monolithic, religious communities, has its origins in nineteenth century interpretations of Indian history, where not only were. the two communities described as monolithic but they were used in a different sense, and their use has its own history which has yet to be investigated. A small part of this investigation is attempted in this lecture. My intention is to observe how those to whom we give a primary association with Islam, when they first arrived in India, were initially perceived in northern India and the way in which such groups were represented as part of this perception. This was far more nuanced than is allowed for in the concept of monolithic communities, and these

Professor Emeritus, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Zakir Husain Memorial Lecture, 1996.

Social Scientist, Vol. 24, Nos. 9-10, September-October 1996



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