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 map-depicted borders as being the product of a natural timeline that connects all past events with contemporary ones. This view of our past is false.
Nation states are not eternal entities having existed from the beginning of time. They are not primordial spaces that give birth to everlasting 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 the ideas of nation states started to emerge for the first time.
The ideas behind the ensuing nationalistic beliefs were simple enough. It was argued that every ‘nation’ on earth presumed natural and self-coherent should, by right, have its own corresponding country, what is technically known as the ‘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. Today, we have a large body of knowledge that demonstrates how faulty such ideas were, even as they are still being promoted by political ‘elites’ claiming to represent entire peoples.
This manufactured view of the world gets frequently confused with the actual history of the ‘peoples’ now imagined through their respective nation state labels.
Professional historians tell us that history is not the same thing as our actual past; 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 today, it must 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. Only I can speak for them”. We usually do this on the back of identities wedded to territories that we want to covert as ours exclusively.
Ancient ‘peoples’ do not neatly equate to our modern day ‘nation states’ though. Our priorities are ephemeral and not eternal. Ancient and medieval peoples viewed the world they lived in differently. 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, wrongly 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. Nationalists take “ownership” of that past.
It is not the actual history of past events though 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 is characterised by tribal wars, conquests, slavery (crucially outside colonial race theories), settlement, the odd genocide (much less gruesome than its modern-day equivalence), urbanisation (outside warped views of city dwellers being different to villagers), emerging civilisations, of emerging scripts, of writing, ancient crafts, the silk road, splendid architectural monuments, refined court poetry, music and dance, international trade, seafaring, royal patronage, and grand gestures of egotistical maniacs – this list is endless.
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.
To give you an idea of how closely connected the established religions we take for granted today had been with historical “power dynamics”, they would never have spread had they not been incorporated within the emerging territorial polities of their day – where power goes, religion follows. Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, to this list one can add less populous religions like Zoroastrianism, or Judaism, are only around today, because rulers “christened” these religions by making them state religion. Outside such power dynamics, these religions would have faded into the backdrop of emerging religions – a cycle that saw the emergence of thousands of religions, all borrowing and recycling from the religions they eclipsed – which then gradually but eventually disappeared.
In this sense ordinary people are like chattel, proof of the “victor’s” enormous wealth, a bit like the Abba song – ‘the winner takes it all’. 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, “the sons of Zeus” etc. 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’ or ‘appropriated’ (such was the obsession for regal authenticity), 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, someone, somewhere determined the ‘maps’, the geographical ‘labels’, the ‘ethnic’ or ‘national’ identities – how you and I should self-affirm!
Ancient India is a good example of nation state fictions
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 huge 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 colonially-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-day 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 enormous 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 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 natives.
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 to the envy of the old establishment. Such was the envy and jealousy, the old guard resorted to name-calling, calling these ‘upstaters’ – “Nabobs”, a pun on the word Nawab (nobility; a term used for Indian rulers) as many Nabobs consciously adopted the fashions and habits of Indian rulers.
India’s colonial rulers were fully aware of the ‘Indian’ gem that had fallen in their lap, 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, as their forebears had been accustomed to such client-master relations for centuries, proof that nationalism or ‘patriotism’ in India is an entirely modern phenomenon.
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.
Such is the legacy of the misnomers we use, unaware of the power-dynamics behind that actual history.
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 as it was for China (note, the Great Wall of China), 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, populations, peoples, groups, moved from their ancestral tracts to shelter elsewhere. Because of these persecutions, forays and conflicts, 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. Colonial ethnologists believed back then, as some historians still do, that the original progenitors of the Gujjar, Jat and some Rajput backgrounds, were remnants of these hordes, as their scions went on to coalesce with the extant populations. Many other groups, no longer identified with these labels, also belonged to this population including many members of various occupational castes – wrongly identified by colonial ethnologists as separate but self-sustaining groups. This history should not be confused with the caste-system as landed ‘clans’ and occupational ‘castes’ were codified separately on the basis of some very dubious priorities.
The crucial point being, these populations however they were identified, imagined or categorised by the British colonialists, 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 all those centuries ago. 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 on the vast North Indian Plains and which stretched back to the western Himalaya.
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’, or a geo-administrative ‘region’, artificial spaces confused with a people’s “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.
British Paharis and Kashmir – the ‘homeland’ question?
It is this ‘India’, the India of the Past and not the one of the British imagination, or its successor States, of Hindu Nationalists, Pakistani Ideologues, and Kashmiri nationalists, 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 the past, it stretched much further west into regions that are now considered part of Afghanistan particularly around the environs of the Kabul River. The culture’s traditional heartland in Peshawar, on account of the historical polities that ruled the region, no longer forms part of its cultural-sphere today. The Peshawar basin and the Swat valley today are predominately populated by Pashto speaking tribes who came to the area approximately 400 to 500 years ago. Modern-day Pashtuns do not represent the historical culture of the region which now extends more eastwards.
Traditionally, the Pahari-cultural-sphere was located within the heartlands of the ancient Gandhara Civilisation. It is from this ‘space’ we have the roots of our cultural traditions and language. With the upheavals of wars and conflicts, ‘Paharis’ have been gradually moving eastwards, from the River Indus as far afield as the Pir Panjal Mountain Range that separates them from ethnic Kashmiris and another closely related people – the Dogras.
It is from this ‘India’, centuries before it was conflated with the India of the Indo-Gangetic Plains, that British Paharis should start to trace the journey of their cultural forbears. It is an ‘India’ that we should all be proud of, 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 or individuals committed to fabricating their own people’s history. 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.