My Thoughts on The Historical Discipline

While studying historical works, a recurring claim of historians has always been thought provoking for me. The said claim often echoes the lamentation that the subject under study has been ignored by the preceding historians, it has not received enough historical attention and that the subject remains understudied and so on. This limitation speaks volumes about the evolution of historical writing itself and doing so can even help us understand some aspects of the socio-cultural and intellectual worlds of our pasts. One of the ways it can do so is to illuminate the absent, the non-subject (the subject that is not being talked about) of the historical works that are under study, simply by virtue of not existing in the historian’s frame of focus. Given the universe that is the past, it is understandable that exclusion of anything else apart from the subject under study is inevitable due to practical reasons. An absolutely all-encompassing history writing is a utopian ambition. However, if over a period of time we notice what is made conspicuous repeatedly and what remains concealed consistently in the historical annals, we can make a sound inference about what has been glorified and what has not. 

In her article Rethinking Mughal India: Challenge of a Princess Memoir, Ruby Lal has pointed out how our understanding of the Mughal history is influenced by our reliance on the Akbarnama of Abu Fazl and other court chroniclers and administrators, mostly men. Not only does this reflect the historiography that is “largely rooted in a tradition of writing about military and political power,” but it is also indicative of what is not deemed glorious. By introducing us to the daughter of Emperor Babur and Emperor Humayun’s half-sister Gulbadan Banu Begum’s Ahval-I Humayun Badshah, she brings to light many hitherto unknown aspects of the Mughal world. For instance, Banu’s account gives us the glimpse of the women’s scholarship, shifts our gaze from the courts to the domestic quarters and the zenana, offers an alternate perspective from the politico-military to the mundane dimensions of the Mughal universe. This is remarkable in highlighting how history and historians can “make” what is glory-worthy, a folly that even present historians are prone to perpetuate. 

Ruby Lal takes historian Harbans Mukhia to task whose well known study entitled Historians and Historiography During the Reign of Akbar, declared in a footnote that he had nothing significant to add from Gulbadan Banu’s account and listed it as a ‘minor historical work.’ Her conclusion that Mukhia’s choosing to marginalize this important historical source, indispensable as it is to construct the Mughal soft society with its women and servants, is that Mukhia himself makes a distinction between the political and the domestic. In doing so, he injects the former with the worth for glorification, which is well. However, had Ruby Lal not presented us with Banu’s alternative history and opened an avenue for upcoming historians, Mughal historians would be limited to reproducing the glories of the Babur’s incredible inception of the empire and not his relations with his wives and kin, Humayun’s expansionist quest and not the details of his itinerant life with his wife Hamida Banu, Akbar’s robust consolidation of the Mughal rule and not his encouraging efforts in promoting ‘hajj’ among Mughal women. Fortunately, the feminist perspectives have wedged themselves in the academia and a sound foundation has been laid for its flourishing even more so.

The term historiography upon first glance was confusing as the word ‘history’ should have been enough for the understanding of the past. Gradually the intricacies of the historical process bring home to us that history is not a given. Due to its remoteness, the historian’s limitation of only being able to operate from the present creates a space where a multitude of possibilities can be imagined, fabricated, misinterpreted, distorted and so on. It’s not only the temporality that aids and eludes historians of historical truths but also the clues that we employ to help us understand the past: sources. Due to these bewildering factors in play history is not just “what happened” but what can we say about what happened with what we know. Different historians, different sensibilities and different sources lead to many disagreements. 

Firstly, there are disagreements based on the location of the historian i.e. the historian’s own environment and time. For instance, Sir Jadunath Sarkar writing at the turn of the twentieth century about the decline of the Mughal empire cannot be understood by decontextualizing him from his time. Virulently critiquing Aurangzeb in particular as a fanatic autocratic ruler was congruous with the colonial historiography which tended to critique the Mughal rule based on the evidences of temple destruction and the jizyah imposition, maligning him as an oriental despot. It was also convenient for the colonial state to critique the Mughal rule to justify their own rule which they claimed to be far more superior to the Mughals. On the other hand, a present historian Audrey Truschke in her autobiography gives us a well-rounded view about his religious life for instance. She discusses while he was admittedly a pious Muslim privately, his kingship was not guided by religion but by practical reasons. The grandeur of Mughal architecture and monuments erected by his predecessor had burned a hole in the imperial treasury and the gradual cropping up of various regional autonomous powers in the subcontinent along with his expansionist ambitions, all led to the decline of the Mughal Empire. Hence, it is important for historians to not only be careful about the sources they use and how they interpret it but it is crucially important to critically examine the voices and arguments of other historians. It would be useful to bear in mind E.H Carr’s dictum that to understand history we should also “know the historian.” 

It is not only historical events or a particular historical figure that beget disagreements among historians but the discipline itself and how it should be conducted has been put under scrutiny. The changes in historical writing cannot also be understood without placing it into its context. For instance, in the wake of the enlightenment, historians Like Leopold Von Ranke advocated to inject a scientific temperament to the writing of history and laid emphasis on the value of facts. However, succeeding schools of history especially the Annales argued against the absolute objectivity of “facts”, challenged its veracity and claimed that history can be accommodated within different disciplines which may not immediately be objective but contain their own rationality which can serve to construct meaningful understanding of the past. Hence, this way history was infused with a renewed dynamism and accommodated studies of mentalities and myths which is difficult to objectively make conclusions about. 

As we learn more and more, we also learn what we do not know more of. The latter unexplored realm, provides an opportunity for historians to look for historical ‘truths’ and eventful stories deserving of glorification. But we must be wary, swift and determined for history is not simply an occupation of the professional historian and not merely an intellectual pursuit. The ubiquity of power in all its manifestations is also embedded within the discipline of history and what purpose history and historians serve. Here I should like to venture into Gayatri Spivak’s vexing question which has troubled (not limited to the metaphorical) students of history to elaborate my point because my faith in their promise to reclaim the glory from the lions and hunting is yet to experience an intellectual shift. Hence, in my opinion, subaltern studies have the potential to challenge and subvert the proverbial caution, “until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will glorify the hunter.” 

However, I remain confused, because for me the ‘subaltern’ cannot speak. I emphatically state that because the subaltern has no voice and no language in which they can be heard unmediated. The historian is to translate what the subaltern has to say which invests upon him/her enormous power and responsibilities. This can be illustrated by recalling the colonial knowledge building process in India from the late eighteenth century onwards. While the colonial enterprise of learning the customs and traditions of India was based on the enlightenment principles, its purpose we now know, subjugated Indians more than it liberated them. It was not solely to unearth India’s glorious past but to firmly absorb it into the mechanism of the colonial political apparatus. Thus, hegemony was gained, colonialism justified and with the power of knowledge and resources, it was celebrated. Until the nationalist historians of India initially and gradually post-colonial and other historians recognised colonialism for its characteristic predatory nature. The subaltern here, I intended to mean the preyed upon, whether it’s Mughal women or the colonial subjects. The categories may change with changes in societies with time. However, the cautionary saying may guide historians to recognize where power lies and how it is to be critiqued. That is the challenge for the historian who does not wish to serve the lions. 

About the author: Fatima Hamid (she/her) obtained her education from Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University, respectively. She has edited history books for independent writers and NCERT, in her career. Fatima believes in the transformational magic that fiction can have on us. She also believes that sleeping over her problems would make them disappear.

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