Social Scientist. v 25, no. 290-291 (July-Aug 1997) p. 3.


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IRFAN HABIB*

The Formation of India— Notes on the History of an Idea1

Marc Bloch, the great French historian and Resistance martyr, began his last book The Historian's Craft by referring to his son's question to him, "Of what use is History?" The boy could well have asked, "How much can History be abused?" For the momentarily triumphant Nazis had then appealed to the very same History, of which Bloch was such a careful practitioner, to justify their theory of racial purity, of Nordic superiority and a Jewish conspiracy against it down the ages. With all the dreadful consequences of such notions, readings of History of this sort did not disappear with Hitler, or with the more recent demise of Apartheid in South Africa. These survive and revive surely because of a residue of the parochial and irrational that subsists in all of us. We are gratified if someone tells us that we have been great previously, and, if currently we do not have as much achievement to show as we would like, then the fault must lie with certain perverse internal or external saboteurs. Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities (1983) drew attention to imagined reconstructions of the past on the basis of newly acquired national consciousness in modern times. But parochialism is not just distorted nationalism. After all, communities of religion, race, caste, and tribe all constitute as much of "imagined" phenomena as the nation. In India where these various identities mix, contradict and interact, we have long been finding endeavours to reconstruct such histories as might justify one's particular attachments.

At first sight it may seem that if imaginary or one-sided history gives people a measure of self-confidence, it would be churlish to refuse such medicinal aid. But one ought to remember that history is for a people as memory of one's past is for the individual. If I build up for myself in my own mind an imagined greatness which the world has failed to recognise because of the machinations of certain people, such a view is not likely to assist me in faring better in relations with fellow human beings or^ indeed, in divesting myself of those gross imperfections which exist in me. What applies to individuals, must apply to peoples. A false history poses a real danger to their moral fibre and capacity for development, whatever its immediate or short-term blandishments. There can therefore be no justification ever for doctored history.

* Formerly Professor of History at the Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh.

**From address at the Vidyasagar University, Midnapore, 3rd Convocation, 27 March 1998.

Social Scientist, Vol. 25, Nos. 7-8, July-August 1997



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