Book Title: The Indians: Histories of a Civilization
Author: GN Devy, Tony Joseph, Ravi Korisettar
PHILOSOPHERS and social scientists over the last three centuries have been quite obsessed with the internal stratification of the world. In other words, they have grappled with the question of the primary units in terms of which the world is to be understood. In this search, race, religion, civilisation, class and nation have been some of the important candidates. From among them, the idea of civilisation has been the most complex, particularly for a country like India. On the one hand, it enabled Indians to stand up to the West and assert its superiority vis-a-vis the Europeans. But, on the other, it also upheld internal elitism and exclusion by declaring some Indians to be superior to the rest and being the real custodians of the civilisation. The idea of civilisation sanctified all forms of hierarchy. The official narrative of Indian civilisation, created by its core, excluded the lower castes, tribals and the nomadic communities. The ongoing march of Indian civilisation created margins. And the official records of the civilisation excluded them from its fold. The creation and exclusion of social margins has really been the story of Indian civilisation, as against its self-image.
The book under review addresses this anomaly. It does not repudiate, or even critique, the basic idea of civilisation. It, however, enlarges the imagination of Indian civilisation in such a way that it brings the masses of common people into its orbit. The book thus re-draws the conceptual boundaries of Indian civilisation.
The volume brings together at one place the vast panorama of Indian history through all its stages, including the pre-historic one. Around a hundred specialists of Indian history have provided brief and authentic accounts of nearly all the important facets of the long Indian history.
They have raised new questions and also provided credible answers to old questions and debates. The range of their concerns includes debates among the specialists but also popular curiosities. How old is India’s past? What kind of people populated it initially? Were the Aryans original inhabitants of the land or did they come from the Central Asian steppe? Curious and concerned readers will find authentic answers, based on old research and also new findings.
The scope of the book’s enquiry is broadly three-fold. One, it is really interested in the question of the development of different and disparate groups, regions and speech communities and how they all came together and constituted the ‘whole’. The approach of the book is not that of the spread of the civilisation from the core. Rather, it sees civilisation as the result of the coming together of diverse regions and communities, the building blocks. Upon this view, different groups and communities created their cultures and languages which then fed into the civilisation. Quite understandably, the largest part of the book is devoted to a discussion on the development of diverse regions, cultures and languages. Out of a total of 101 entries, nearly 40 are devoted to this theme.
The second focus of the book is on retrieving the social margins — lower castes, nomadic communities, pastoralists, tribals, forest dwellers. These groups had their distinctive ways of living and brought dynamism to the Indian civilisation. Any comprehensive story of Indian civilisation must focus on them. The volume does a credible job not just of including these marginal groups into the fold of Indian civilisation, but also highlights ways in which they enriched it.
This third focus of the book is on India’s encounters with modernity. The impact of British colonialism on Indian economy and polity, struggles against it, identitarian struggles of various groups, Independence and Partition, and the trajectory of development in Independent India are some of the major themes taken up.
These then are the three axis on which the idea of Indian civilisation had been built. They may be identified as contributions from the margins, a centripetal rather than centrifugal thrust of the civilisation, and important encounters with the West under modern conditions. Through all this, the book really celebrates the idea of plurality and the doctrine of pluralism. It offers a plural, as against a unitarian view of Indian civilisation. This plural view is currently going through a lean phase. Both the political and cultural headquarters of the Indian society have been busy proclaiming the necessity and the superiority of a unitarian polity. The chorus in favour of unitarianism has been steadily growing louder and more vociferous. This is the context that gives the book its real salience. It is an important reminder of what we are forgetting. However, in the process of forgetting, and being reminded, we need to ask a question: why is it that plural societies develop a penchant for unitarianism, which in the long run, can only be self-destructive? How is it that societies and their leaders can so easily turn against the very founding principles which created those societies? The book under review does not answer the question. But those of us who value plurality and pluralism must ponder over it.