Intro: Sidetracked and stonewalled for long, it’s time to write the histories of the Dharmic Subalterns of India during the Medieval Period.
History textbooks often represent indigenous Indians (the Dharmic Subalterns) as toiling away in their fields unconcerned, paying their taxes, as armies of various Sultans or Mughal dynasties battled in adjacent pastures. Unfortunately, this image of the changeless, de-politicised, unconcerned peasant is usually the only agreed upon representation of indigenous Indians during the medieval period.
However, regarding the indigenous inhabitants of the subcontinent, there is a rich alternative history waiting to be explored. Infact, much research waits to be explored that could unlock the mysteries of why India, among all nations subjected to centuries of Islamic imperialism, resisted mass conversion.
The inquiry begins by asking, why mayhem, genocide, pogroms, and cultural assault in a certain area and era are fascinating academic research topic, whereas cultural assaults, genocide, and mayhem in another locale and time, are politically incorrect historical subject matter shunned by scholars?
Academia has for decades sidetracked and stonewalled research projects or in-depth discussions that focus too closely on the destruction and dislocation associated with the many incursions led and organised by medieval Central Asian invaders who entered into the Indian Subcontinent over the course of seven centuries. Medieval Period is thus a period almost devoid of indigenous Indian voices.
Researching various communities in the subcontinent that passively resisted Islamisation is an area that could generate fascinating biographies and ethno-anthropological studies.
What is missing?
Far too little is known about the responses of indigenous groups to those pressures brought by to India by in-feuding Islamic invaders who vied with each other as well as with Hindu rulers for military supremacy while drawing funds from the local in habitants.
How did the locals resist or accommodate this political, cultural and economic exploitation? What techniques did they devise to survive the coercion brought on by years of warfare and the tumultuous turnovers in rulers and their changing laws and policies, rules that were often based on codes and canons alien and invasive to the local policies and practices?
Why are there so few narratives of the indigenous responses to the centuries of repression during which these peoples, underrepresented in standard histories, were able to retain their cultural traditions and withstand tremendous military and economic pressures?
In an extended era of political uncertainty, with changes in governments brought on by military adventurism and draconian taxation and intermittent warfare, how did groups such as Jain merchants or Hindu traders and farmers maintain their traditions? What methods did these under represented indigenous peoples employ to maintain their cultural cohesiveness while cohabitating as unequals in a system designed to discriminate against their community, in particular when their religious leaders and spiritual institutions were often targeted for extermination?
Much research waits to be explored that could unlock the mysteries of why India, among all nations subjected to centuries of Islamic imperialism, resisted mass conversion.
If a scholar asks such questions it inherently implies that there were gravely disruptive pressures acting upon the community. But, describing these pressures, the destruction of places of worship, the confiscation of properties and the banning of celebrations by a series of Sultans and other Islamic rulers who participated in the extermination and dislocation of large numbers of indigenous peoples of “Dharmic” traditions—these are not acceptable topics of study.
It is therefore almost impossible to address related subject areas such as the tenacity of many Hindu and Jain (aka Dharmic) communities that retained their customs under considerable duress for centuries. Who were these peoples, the middle class entrepreneurs, the higher castes who continued their traditions privately when under constraint, in their kitchens so to speak? Importantly, and especially, how did the Hinduised Adivasi and Tribal communities resist Islamisation passively? What was the majority of the inhabitants of the subcontinent doing during the medieval period and why have their stories been excluded from history books?
Brahmins and Kshatriyas were often targeted by the invaders for being the holders of tradition and the traditional defenders of the faith. There are many tales of Brahmins being singled out by Islamic warriors for special humiliation, splattered with the blood of beef and other polluting disgraces, and Kshatriyas committing mass suicide rather than submit to defeat. Given these dramatic levels of violence, the vast majority of the inhabitants of India don’t have their narratives included in standard history textbooks. Hindus, Jains, Sikhs, and other communities with beliefs characterised by qualities associated with Sanatan Dharma, though subjected to intense pressures for half a millennium, were somehow able to continue their traditions. These Dharmic traditions did not disappear, unlike their non-Abrahamic “Pagan” counterparts in other parts of the world that experienced the same pressures and slowly ceased to exist. After a few hundred years most cultural areas invaded and governed by Islamic rulers almost became completely Islamised.
The core of India even after more than seven hundred years remained Dharmic. This remarkable resilience of cultural tenacity, a dramatic example of civilisational continuity is not part of the world’s most well known and fascinating lines of research.
The lost centuries of Indian history are due to the contemporary road blocks constructed to prevent a dispassionate discussion of the traumas brought to India by the early Islamic invasions. If scholars are repeatedly chided and labeled pejoratively for investigating the details of these invasions, such discouragement naturally precludes serious study of the controversial topic and ultimately denies students access to the information. In this environment, the lack of scholarly research prohibits a deeper understanding of the impact and correlative indigenous responses of the peoples inhabiting the subcontinent during this dramatic and draconian historical period. This unwritten prohibition of historical negationism prevents inquiries not only into valuable areas of research that could enhance our understanding of the history of the world, but also dismisses an opportunity to better understand human nature.
There are often discussions among scholars that India is not really a nation, as we think of modern nation-states. Yet there are others who argue that for millennia India has exuded a civilisational recognition between its far-flung geographical parts—rather a proto-nationhood, or rashtriya, that has a geographically distinct antecedent reflected in ancient literature, core beliefs, and common traditions. Most modern Indians think of their country in these terms—a modern nation with ancient connections.
The fact is, today’s India has developed a national identity based on a perceived political or national unity shared by its diverse people, whose shared histories long predate the incorporation of independent India in 1947. Many contributions to the development of this Indian identity have come from lesser-known communities, whose stories are usually left out of the approved historical narrative of the nation. There are obvious gaps in the standard retelling of the story of India as told in history textbooks, gaps from the ancient period to the modern. Gaps in our knowledge of the past have been created by an over concern regarding the possible ideological consequences of historical narratives. Voices of the past have been caught and held captive by a contorted epistemology of twisted representations, without which, their stories could be told, in a fuller telling, a multi-nuanced treatment.
Yvette C. Rosser (The writer also known as Ram Rani is an American Scholar who writes on Hinduism)