A land of pride and prejudice

Colonial Indology
September 18, 1998

An old man who had been in the Indian army before 1939 told me that he thought the Indians were not very bright, though once he had dined with an Indian officer who had turned out to be "quite intelligent".

Dilip Chakrabarti's book on Indology reminds us that the attitudes that permeated and informed empire and impinged upon the study of its various parts were indeed little more refined than that of the racism of this boring old officer and that the relationship of a governing country to its subjects is never likely to be much better. Theories about the past of those countries often reflect such views and the history of Indological scholarship is riddled with them.

Colonial Indology reviews the development of outworn theories of race and language from the 18th century to the present and demonstrates that ideas of how to categorise peoples in a racist hierarchy of types, in a myriad of ways, are what the study of ancient India has often been about. The innate superiority of sections of the world's people over others is the touchstone of colonial administration everywhere, polluting, especially, studies in the cultures of the dominated, developing as these hegemonies grew. Chakrabarti is not noted for his reticence in this or any other subject and he pillories the system of teaching the history of Indian culture as it exists in the modern age, linking it to these outmoded traditions. He points a wagging finger at many notable scholars, all, in his view, perpetuators of the myth of an India where the best things find their origins elsewhere. He is not a xenophobe or a fundamentalist. What he does is simply to urge a return to data-led empiricism free from preconception.

There are in the subcontinent many differences in language, dress, religion and other matters. These issues do not, however, detract from an inherent "South Asian-ness", in strictly non-political terms, detectable everywhere, the archaeological record in virtually every area of the subcontinent demonstrating a true continuity over time. Chakrabarti's contribution in this book is to point to this unity, identifying India as a major centre in its own right. He roundly castigates the Aryan theorists, certain physical anthropologists and linguists, all of whom have done much to develop the view that a disunited India ultimately owes what it is to somewhere else. Archaeologists fall into this trap, too, seeking to justify speculations based upon the vagaries of ancient Indian textual sources, linking the evidence of the spade with the most mercurial of historical traditions. In general the author seeks to explain the past by casting aside matters which do not aid or which obscure that process.

Some people have taken grave exception to Chakrabarti's views and have attacked this book roundly. It is high time, however, that someone like him raised these issues, long settled in most parts of the world, and set in motion a debate which is overdue and is of importance to the study of ancient India in the modern context. Let us now get on with the task of looking at the long history of the subcontinent in its own terms and let the archaeological facts speak for themselves.

Robert Knox is keeper of Oriental antiquities, British Museum.

Colonial Indology

Author - Dilip K. Chakrabarti
ISBN - 81 215 0750 2
Publisher - Munshiram Manoharlal
Price - Rs350
Pages - 257

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