Imagining the ‘past”; reconstructing ‘national’ ‘histories’

reconstructing history and imagining the past of nation states


A lot of us confuse our ‘countries’ – and the technical term for what I’m describing is ‘nation states’ – with ideas of historical continuity. We tend to confuse our countries delineated by their ‘borders’ as being the product of a natural timeline that connects all past events with contemporary ones. But nation states are not eternal entities having existed from the beginning of time. They’re not primordial spaces that give birth to primordial cultures, separate or distinct from neighbouring or faraway countries. Nation states are ‘territories’ fabricated by historical powers – in our case Western European ones – that ruled them, at a significant juncture in the past, when territory-derived ‘identities’ were first emerging.

The ideas behind the ensuing identities were simple enough. It was argued that every ‘nation’ on earth – presumed natural and self-coherent – should, by right, have its own corresponding country – ‘nation state’. It was argued that the ‘nationals’ of a ‘nation’ should govern themselves, and many national ‘elites’ emerged to assume this very responsibility. How any number of people were to be identified as a ‘nation’ was a separate and convoluted undertaking motivated by political priorities and not ethnological ones. And we have a large body of knowledge that demonstrates how faulty such representations were – usually at the behest of political ‘elites’.

It is this ideological position that gets frequently confused with the actual history of the ‘peoples’ now imagined through their respective nation state labels.

The ‘Past’ is not the same thing as ‘History’ – events that occurred many hundreds or thousands of years ago need narrators. We tend to look to the historian as our narrator, our ‘storyteller’ if you like, to take us back to ‘our’ past imagined on the basis of where we live and how we imagine our people and their forbears, ancestors or otherwise.

We say to ourselves, “because I live here, it must therefore follow, that my people – thousands of years ago – also lived here. I am them and they are me. I own their memories because I come from them – my priorities and anxieties determine how they are ‘perceived’.” We usually do this on the back of identities wedded to territories that we want to covert as ours exclusivley.

Ancient peoples do not equate to our modern day equivalence though. Our priorities are temporal and not eternal. Ancient and medieval peoples do not neatly equate to nation states. For instance, the French Republic is not the depository of memories owned by peoples who happened to live within its 18th century borders, hundreds or thousands of years earlier. We imagine these people as “Frenchmen”. How we choose to narrate that history, imagined to be synonymous with the ‘past’ is precisely because we as modern people are projecting backwards to affirm ourselves through the imagined memories of our forebears.

This history is really about political claims. It is not the history of past events but contemporary priorities.

The accounts we have of ancient peoples before the advent of nation states, after they became sedentary, and formed some of the earliest farming communities, contrasts starkly with how we imagine them. This pre-modern period is a very long one, pre-dating the polities we take for granted and characterised by tribal wars, conquests, slavery (crucially outside colonial race theories), settlement, the odd genocide (much less gruesome than its modern-day equivalence), urbanisation, emerging civilisations, of new scripts and writing, ancient crafts, the silk road, splendid monuments, refined court poetry, international trade, seafaring, royal patronage, and grand gestures.

It is not the history of ‘nationals’ in the sense of nation states, or ordinary folk. It is the history of those who commissioned courtly scribes and writers to record their personal exploits and ‘god-like’ accomplishments. In this sense ordinary people are like chattel, proof of the victor’s enormous wealth. This history is patron-inspired. We can learn a lot about the people who commissioned this history, and occasionally about the ordinary people described in the ‘chronicles’ of the great Kings. It is essentially the history of courtly privilege, and not the history of ethnically diverse states like ‘China’, ‘India’ or ‘Turkey’ to name some examples.

Whenever this ‘past’ is narrated, we inevitably learn of great Kings and Emperors who ruled ‘x’, ‘y’ and ‘z’ dominions. We learn of their successors, the Kings and Emperors they defeated, their lineages even when ‘imagined’, but seldom do we learn of the ‘subject populations’ they ruled, the cultures of the ordinary tribes and the dialects they spoke that changed every mile and became less intelligible as the dialects morphed into other dialects. There was no ‘standardisation’ of dialects back then in the way we imagine official languages with scripts and vast literatures, and of course their ‘natural’ systems of prescriptive ‘grammar’!

The association of language with territory is a modern projection – it’s a bit like our borders, someone, somewhere, determined what constituted ‘correct’ speech.

Ancient India

The ‘India’ of ‘past’ generations is likewise the ‘history’ of sovereign realms and their independent rulers – of courtly prestige and privileged elites. It’s the ‘history’ of ancient Kingdoms and ancient Empires (in terms of how we imagine Empires), of tribal confederacies that emerged and disappeared, and of wars that were fought across vast regions for the aggrandisement of expanding ‘Kingdoms’.

This ‘India’ is very different to the ‘India’ we take for granted today as the Republic of India – the successor State to British India. It is not the ‘India’ of modern-day Pakistanis who imagine their history to have begun with the advent of Islam in 711 CE off the Makran coast and as far as modern-day Multan, Pakistan, a tiny area when compared with the ‘space’ we imagine as ancient ‘India’. It is neither the India of our ‘Hindu Nationalists’ who extend that history back many more thousands of years, and even over larger distances. Our new India with its colonial induced categories which we still use as frames of reference, ethnic, linguistic, regional, with ‘fixed’ state or provincial borders, would have been alien to the ancient peoples that are now imagined through the corresponding but ‘fixed’ identities and who, in all likelihood, transcended such spaces.

The ‘India’ of our modern imagination would have had little or no resonance for the pre-modern inhabitants that lived in their small farm communities, or the nomads that crossed huge distances seasonally. Even the generic ascription ‘Indian’ which we apply to India’s diverse peoples and for all sorts of things that fall within the modern boundaries of the State is a projection. It may be the birthright of ideologically minded Indians, but the idea would have been an alien concept to their forbears. Whenever we think like this, we are speaking of perceptions about the landmass that came to be associated with the territories of the British ‘Indian’ Empire – lands all delineated ‘India’ by ‘foreigners’.

We are dealing with colonial projections.

In fact, the British were the first ‘foreign’ invaders to actually map the entire subcontinent giving it a coherence that previous conquerors had failed to germinate. They created an amazing railway system that connected the exterior of the country with the interior. This had never been done before, and gave people a sense of a wider space that they felt was ‘naturally’ theirs, just as India’s raw materials where shipped abroad.

By no means were the British unique in how they dealt with their ‘Indian’ colony. Like previous conquerors, they were attracted to this part of the world because of its enormous wealth. They cared very little for the ordinary native, and had less concern about narrating his or her past.

Invaders to the subcontinent have come and gone in droves. In almost unceasing chronological order on such an unprecedented scale that for a large part of the subcontinent’s chronicled past, various ‘Indian’ polities were intimately linked with centres of power outside what we today imagine as ‘South Asia’.

The subcontinent’s fabled wealth and vast human and natural resources lured Empires from far afield, and ambitious potentates nearby, for the amassing of fortunes unparalleled elsewhere. Cyrus the Persian and Alexander the Marcedonian were some of the ancient Kings who marched that path, they were aware of the vast riches and huge populations that existed within this broad space. There is a reason why so many foreigners came to India and why so few Indian Rulers felt the need to move westwards into what they viewed as poorer lands. Ancient Indian Rulers were fully aware of the lands that transcended their territories outside the subcontinent; they too were connected with international trade and commerce.

And they were all too aware of their wealth and prestige.

These rulers sat at the top of a complex system of patronage. Smaller tribal republics and larger confederacies existed, and local native rulers exercised practical sovereignty over the territories they governed in the name of their patron. In difficult mountainous terrain or hard to reach areas, many of these ‘territories’ were nominally independent. This usually occurred within a hierarchy of symbolic sovereignty, and more often than not, they would fall prey to the larger structures of ever-changing regimes, for whose upkeep they offered their mercenary services, and without which, life would have been hard.

None of these tribal networks felt a shared national bond to the idea of a country called ‘India’ or an identity steeped in religion, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim or otherwise.

But, to give some perspective to these patronage networks and the wealth they controlled, the various territorial polities of ‘India’ had the highest economic output of any comparable ‘Kingdoms’ outside the subcontinent. Between 1 CE until about 1700 CE, the subcontinent’s GDP accounted for 25 percent of the entire world’s GDP. China accounted for another 25 percent. China and India were light-years ahead of their ‘equals’ in Europe, the wealth that characterised the regal courts made European courts look impoverished. Even the quality of life of the ordinary person was much higher than in Europe, realities that changed drastically after the advent of European Imperialism. When Indian historians decry the advent of British colonialism, they are not wrong in asserting that Britain, not merely exploited India, but made it much poorer and worsened life conditions for the ordinary native.

Of course, this indictment becomes ’emotive’ when they fail to mention some of the positives that accrued from this status quo, although on balance we can say impartially that British colonialism set India back many centuries. India vastly enriched Britain and Britain vastly impoverished India. Whatever the benefits of a centralised administrative system and an expansive transport infrastructure, or the legacy of speaking English, the world’s most preeminent international language, and there were of course other (greatly exaggerated) benefits such as the rule of law and the English common law system, these costs were adequately defrayed by India’s natural resources. But when speaking of its proceeds of profits, ordinary Indians did not benefit, these were reserved for the colonial patrons who went on to build their stately mansions in Britain to showcase their new status. India’s colonial rulers were fully aware of this ‘Indian’ gem and were paranoid of losing it. They created all sorts of buffer countries and colonies to protect this ‘prize’.

No historian of intellectual integrity would challenge this characterisation except to say that many Indians – the regional elites – were more than happy to be part of this status quo.

But, this pattern of exploitation has happened in many parts of the world. Poor countries with limited natural and human resources very rarely get ‘conquered’. The costs and efforts of prosecuting a war, usually far from home, are outweighed by the ‘rewards’. And if ambitious ‘rulers’ lack the wherewithal to take a country’s natural resources by force, they want to trade and partake in the riches. This interdependence is not merely an aspect of modern globalisation, but characterised ancient polities for centuries.

Thousands of years before the East India Company was awarded its charter to trade with India, the Romans were trading with coastal communities in India. Gold, wine, spices and other products exchanged hands as the patrons of this trade grew enormously wealthy. Even back then, the Romans complained about their trade-deficit with India – ‘priorities’ we confuse with modern commerce.

It was on account of ‘India’s’ fabled wealth that Christopher Columbus in the 15th century CE sought to discover a new route to the subcontinent as the older routes were blocked by the emergence of the Ottomans on the edge of Europe. The traditional trading ports of Europe went into permanent decline during this period. We all know from our school-days, Columbus went on to ‘chance-discover’ the ‘New’ World, creating the shift in power-dominance between western Europe and Asia. The indigenous peoples of North and South America were wrongly identified as ‘Indians’, and it is on account of this initial misunderstanding that the term is still in vogue today.

But centuries earlier, before the chance ‘discovery’ of the ‘New World’ and the British colonisation of ‘India’, migrants from West and Central Asia had been traversing the mountain passes to settle their own ‘version’ of ‘India’. Aside from the fleeting raid, a perpetual problem for the sedentary populations living on the Indian frontier, many nomadic tribes eventually put down roots. At times, they uprooted older communities who had no choice but to seek a future elsewhere. But, more often they coalesced with the ‘natives’ assuming new tribal identities on the basis of changing tribal configurations.

Where harmony was not possible entire tribes moved from their ancestral tracts to shelter elsewhere. Because of these persecutions, Europe’s Roma communities (as they later identified) left the North West of India during the advent of the 11th century CE and wandered in the direction of Europe were they became a stigmatised and persecuted minority. The label ‘gypsy’ is insightful of how European peoples historically imagined these communities; it was assumed that they had originated from the direction of Egypt. Other scholars have proposed different theories on the origin of the word ‘gypsy’ which merely goes to show that this history is a lot more complicated than our simplistic impressions.

In ‘India’ these realities were nonetheless fluid. Old tribal ascriptions were exchanged for new ones just as the older alliances fell apart, or were eclipsed by new political arrangements. Sometimes the invaders adopted the religion of the conquered, and at other times, the conquered adopted the religion of the invaders. Some of these conquerors were enlightened and benign whilst others are still remembered for persecuting communities they did not like; Mihirakula – the cruel Hun being a good example.

Who these people were and where they came from, may be hard to determine, but we know for sure that they added to the subcontinent’s gene pool. Their numbers were small compared with the huge populations of the Ganga-Yamuna region of North India, and so they were unable to change India’s overall genetic profile. But this does not mean that they did not come to ‘India’ at all. They came, stayed and coalesced with the existing population to such an extent that the cleavages created by their violent forays have all been forgotten except to the classical historian.

The crucial point being, they never once viewed themselves as belonging to a uniform nation called ‘India’.

In time their linear descendants forgot about their foreign origin as they pointed their finger accusatorially at the newest intruders. This is especially poignant for those of us who live on that north western frontier through which these ‘hordes’ entered the subcontinent from Central Asia. The famous or infamous Khyber Pass was literally the choice of entry for many invaders, and it was firmly located within the cultural region we now identify with the Pahari-cultural-sphere. The dynamics behind such migrations have greatly influenced the nature of our societies and the tribal configurations that emerged.

It is in this context that cultural-regions make sense outside the simplicity of fixed ethnic identities that we too readily take for granted especially when we think that they were somehow wedded to the borders of ‘Nation States’, their internal sub-divisions or ‘provinces’. It makes more sense to narrate the history of a cultural-region as opposed to narrating the history of a ‘country’, an artificial space confused with a primordial history. Whenever we speak of cultural-regions, we are speaking of spaces that transcend the traditional geographical or political borders of modern nation states and their administrative sub-divisions.

It is this ‘India’, the India of the Past and not the one of the British imagination, or its successor States, that is particularly salient for those of us who would like to narrate the history of our cultural heritage outside political frameworks. The Pahari-cultural-sphere is one such cultural-region that transcends the administrative sub-divisions of Pakistan, Pakistan-administered-Kashmir and Indian-administered-Kashmir. In previous ages, it stretched much further west into regions that are now considered part of Afghanistan particularly around the environs of the Kabul River. It’s traditional heartland in Peshawar – on account of affluent polities characterised by the same cultural norms – no longer forms part of its cultural-sphere today as the Peshawar basin and the Swat valley are predominately populated by Pashtun-speaking tribes who came to the area approximately 400/500 years ago.

This area was associated with the ancient Civilisation of Gandhara, and it is from this ‘space’ we have the roots of our cultural traditions and language. With the emergence of Pashtun tribes, ‘Paharis’ have been moving eastwards, from the River Indus as far afield as the Pir Panjal Mountain Range that separates them from ethnic Kashmiris and Dogras.

It is from this ‘India’, centuries before it was conflated with the India of the Indo-Gangetic Plains, that our people should start to trace the journey of their cultural forbears. It is an ‘India’ that we should all be proud of, all the while, mindful of not making the same mistakes nationalists make when they claim a ‘past’ for themselves exclusively. When we look at this region, we do so from a fresh pair of eyes that have not been tainted by nationalistic ideologies. Our priorities are therefore more tempered, as we are simply trying to trace the roots of our culture – one that we have every reason to be proud of, not least because our forbears contributed massively to a range of human accomplishments.

The Gandharan Civilisation is justly celebrated in many Museums around the world whilst those who now live in the region are completely unaware of the rich culture of their forbears.
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Associate Editor and researcher at the Portmir Foundation. Born and raised in England. Parents from Pakistan-administered-Jammu, from Mirpur which is not part of Kashmir Province or the Valley – these are themselves separate places; Mirpur is part of the disputed territory of Jammu & Kashmir “STATE”.

Love literature, poetry, film, art, music, sufism, Islam, travel, free thought, liberalism, and lots of other things. Have a particularly strong desire to learn about Indian history, the place my forbears are from, and I have no qualms identifying with India – partition made us ‘Pakistanis’ – not necessarily those of ‘us’ from ‘Azad’ Kashmir. I think partition was a bad idea, but I’m not averse to Pakistan either. I’m happy to have multiple identities and love the Pakistan of the ordinary person – the real Pakistan of the ordinary man, woman and children.

Okay, the official bit…

My opinions are not necessarily those of the Portmir Foundation; the Foundation does not do censorship and neither does it endorse my opinions; if you disagree with any us, and you’re from our background, write your own opinion piece and we’ll publish it.


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