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A historian explains why India’s “national culture” is both Hindu and Muslim

EPA/Harish Tygai
As Indian as anything else.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

If history is essential to nationalism as has been frequently said, so too is the claim to a national culture frequently curated from this history. The problem arises when selections have to be made as to what goes into the construction of a national culture. At the official level there is a continued use of the colonial terms: majority and minority, derived from figures of those following different religions. Instead of looking for more valid descriptive terms, the configuring of culture as majority and minority cultures, however inept, is reinforced by saying that whereas the majority culture will be prominent, the cultures of the minorities will also figure. What this means is that Indian culture more often is defined centrally by what is projected as Hindu culture, with an addition if required of items associated with those that come from minority communities.

In India today Islamic and Hindu monuments dominate the landscape. Should they be juxtaposed or should there be an attempt to place each of them in the larger context where their relationship to each other and to the many more cultural items can be observed? Many today, either out of ignorance or for reasons of political ideology, propound theories that can only be called ridiculous—such as, that the Hindus have been victimized by Muslim rule and have been slaves during the last thousand years. The degree of ignorance contained in such a statement is astonishing, because it is actually a denial of the most effective, evocative and cherished religious articulations in various facets of Hinduism that took place during the last thousand years.


Political relations should be examined in terms of the politics of the time.

This is not to say that there was no confrontation at the political level but this should not be confused with claiming that there was massive victimization of the Hindus bringing about Hindu resistance in the late Mughal period. Political relations should be examined in terms of the politics of the time. Conflicts of a routine kind were clearly local and more casual than has been assumed. Relations between communities in general tend to be governed by some degree of accommodation and some degree of confrontation. It makes greater sense to try and analyse the reasons for either.

The British conquered India but did not settle in the land. They drained its resources to enhance industrial capitalism in the home country and find markets in the colonies. Unlike the British, the Turks, Afghans, Arabs, and Mughals—commonly bunched together as “the Muslim rulers”—invaded India, but also settled in the country. New communities and new patterns of thought and expression came into being. To treat all Hindu and Muslim cultures as separate cultures, entirely segregated and demarcated from each other, is historically untenable, nor is it viable in cultural terms. The form taken by facets of these cultures, and from earliest times, from the architecture and ornamentation of monumental buildings to the compositions of music whether as ragas or qawwalis, derives from the interplay of more than even two cultures. The recognition of this multiplicity gives authenticity to a cultural form.


But to return to our times. Nationalism can determine the selection of what we project as national culture. This helps in the preservation of what otherwise might have declined, or it highlights ideas and objects that might have been neglected. This might be called a positive role even if the selection of what is to be preserved may not have unanimous support from the nation, or that citizens may feel that some cultural items were deliberately or inadvertently left out.

In some ways, it is becoming somewhat anachronistic to speak of national culture.

But there is also the problem of the destruction of culture in the name of nationalism or a similar sentiment. This is generally a systematic, deliberate destruction of a prominent aspect of culture in order to make a statement and attract attention. It is essentially a political act and may actually have little to do with sentiment. There have been some rather dramatic cases of this in recent times. The Greco-Roman monuments in Palmyra and Aleppo in Syria were destroyed by Islamic extremists of the Islamic State; the massive Buddhist statues at Bamiyan in Afghanistan were destroyed again by Islamic extremists, the Taliban; and the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya was destroyed, by Hindu extremists claiming, among other things, to be avenging the raid of Mahmud of Ghazni on the temple of Somanatha that took place a thousand years ago, as well as assuaging a supposed subsequent Hindu trauma. Historically there is no mention of such a trauma in the ancient texts. It is mentioned for the first time in 1842 in the course of a debate in the House of Commons in Britain when a member of the British parliament suggested that the raid might have created a trauma among the Hindus. The Babri Masjid was a sixteenth-century mosque that in the name of history and culture, had been deemed a protected monument of the Indian state, but in the name of Hindu nationalism it was destroyed by those antagonistic to its presence at a site that they claimed was sacred to them marking a temple to Rama.


In some ways, it is becoming somewhat anachronistic to speak of national culture. In the minds and activities of those for whom religious cultures carry a political message of identity, the constituents of national culture can be changed by political diktat. National cultures are not static. They too mutate, dependent on those who create them. What was regarded as national culture by Indians a century ago is not identical with what some Indians today would describe as national culture, for the latter are busy trying to expunge what they maintain are alien elements and not part of the Indian tradition as they see it.

And then there is globalisation. The rush to be globalised brings two contradictory trends: one is to be open and participate in a global economy and society, and the other is to create citadels in the name of religion that are in effect self-contained citadels. It could be said that there is an element of continuity in this. In the past, there were viharas (monasteries), mathas, and khanqahs (hospices) that had contacts with similar institutions in other parts of the known world. Donations from patrons allowed them to be independent of state interference and if they were powerful enough—as some were—they intervened in politics. But with this difference—that whether they saw themselves as another kind of social institution or not, their transparency was also a source of their strength. They were not citadels. Patronage is a significant facet in the making of culture and in protecting what is defined as culture. Who is providing the patronage and for whom and what is being protected and why, are all relevant questions, and in turn raise a host of further questions in their answers. Where patronage takes the form of gift-giving it acts as a method of exchange between donor and recipient, and creates a relationship that has cultural implications. A tangible gift may be given in exchange for an intangible aura and status that is claimed by the donor. Patronage and gift-giving provide many glimpses of cultural readings of a society.

When we speak of national culture today we concede that the state as patron is also involved in determining the content of this culture, as it has always been in the past to varying degrees. What we do not concede but should, is that alternative definitions of culture have also to be protected. This can only become a practice when the defining of culture ceases to go to only one source and is able to induct other sources.

Excerpted with the permission of Aleph Book Company from Indian Cultures As Heritage by Romila Thapar. We welcome your comments at

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