Sat 4 April, 2020

Reclaiming Our Archive: Indic Knowledge Traditions as De-Colonial Practice

The news today, is past tomorrow and the day after is potential archival material. How the archive is read or read against the grain manufactures bureaucratic categories by the state leading to political subject formation such as the citizen or the foreigner. The archive is a site of power as its creation and curation is an act of the state to modulate memories of its subjects/citizens. 

India is a post-colonial national state, where the former colonial masters bequeathed its archival infrastructure to us in Delhi and the individual state level archives such as the Maharashtra Archives in Mumbai. The main South Asian historical archives are in the India Collection at the British Library in London and other libraries throughout the former British Empire. 

The British were meticulous in documenting everything (Historian at MIT, Dr. Sana Aiyar echoes the same sentiments as well), but the ends for the exercise were not exactly charitable. The imperialist initiative was not only extractionary capitalist, but it acted beyond the resources, and attempted to instil a vacuum by erasing one’s native thinking and thought systems. When a culture is unable to think on its own steam, one is unable to formulate a cogent argument against their master.

Radical Theorist Audre Lorde once wrote that “one cannot dismantle the masters house with his tools” hence the ability to care or retrieve one’s knowledge systems from the pre-colonial era is critical to chart out a self-confident trajectory for the future. De-Colonialisation is a popular intellectual movement in academia which seeks to broaden the conversation by acknowledging that there are ideas in the vernacular (who exactly defines, what is Vernacular and how do we define it? Vis-à-vis the Global, the Cosmopolitan) which are native to our language and culture.

As we are educated in a very colonial context often in English medium schools, with a stringent historiography anchored in the leftist school of thought (Think Romila Thapar) that does not even recognise the civilisational fabric of ‘Bharat Varsh’, and works with colonial definitions of when did the cartographic entity called India was formed. The English language is a class in India, and privileges certain topologies of thought over the other. 

The question which might light up in the minds of the readers of this article can be related to the very idea of the why behind the ‘archives question’ itself in 2020. How does it matter? The answer lies in the register of redressal of historical injustices, and shedding light in to our past, as we do not create history rather than are shaped by them, paraphrasing Martin Luther King Junior. The epistemic origins of contemporary identity politics lie in the stories which shape us, the histories from which our past has been selectively narrated to us. 

We are amid a cultural war between cultural nationalists and the left liberal brigade in India, where the current dispensation is expending its overwhelming political mandate to shape the future, based on its interpretation of a golden past (Sone Ki Chidiya) of this civilisational state. Bestselling author Amish who is at present the director of the Nehru Centre in London (on a diplomatic passport), has uttered at numerous forums that we have millions of documents in Sanskrit and Pali still available from our past, in the light of numerous attacks by foreign invaders raising temples, which were our centres of thought as well. 

Our ancestors were prodigious scholars, and the land of Goddess Saraswati is a land which worships learning, unlike our barbaric invaders.

The story of our independence is often narrated as a tale of the victory of nonviolent struggles. However, the reality is more nuanced. Author and Polymath Mr. Sanjeev Sanyal has spoken at length regarding how the Indian Revolutionary Movement has been silenced and erased from our history books. The Navy Revolt in 1946 and the subsequent trail of the sailors was a significant driver for accelerating the withdrawal of the British from the country. 

The seemingly intermittent acts of revolutionary violence written off as trivial by the mainstream nationalist movement was however a stream of activities which were coordinated from Vancouver to London to Singapore to Amritsar and Bombay. There is a need to rewrite our history textbooks to reflects an expanded terrain of narratives. This reworking however requires large institutional resources and time as Sanjeev Sanyal himself has noted. 

Archiving – A Peek into History. Source: www.history.com

The popular narrative nonfiction of history writing is having a mini revival in India with historian Vikram Sampath writing a biography of Savarkar, to Manu S Pillai etching away portraits from hidden corners of history such as the Deccan and Malabar. Official site of history making as the archive chronicles dominant characters of the time and reading (often against the grain) the archive lends us to gauge the silences and erasures which are acts of power. The official archive is a roster of cases, files and trails of bureaucratic life. 

The British did not appreciate the wealth of knowledge in our dharmic traditions as they read, and wrote from an orientalist lens, invoking Edward Said’s canonical book. There is an Indic spirit and ethos, which cannot be grasped by a non-Indian scholar while working on our heritage as most of the texts are more than that, they are hooks to an alternative cognitive corpus. Yoga in the west, sans dharmic thinking is an orientalist trope as is reading Rumi without the faith in Islam he adhered to. The criticism of American liberal scholars of Hinduism such as Sanskritist Sheldon Pollock and Indologist Wendy Doniger by the dharmic scholars is on similar lines. Acharya Crawley and Writer Rajiv Malhotra are writing and speaking to challenge the liberal scholarship. 

There was no incentive for the colonial masters to formalise the dharmic thought into the enlightenment epistemes, although they moved from Persian during the Mughal era to English as the official language of business by Lord Macaulay’ Government of India Education Act 1835, which was meant to educate a legion of administrators who will be ‘near-native’ in character.

The access to the English language gave Indians the ability to engage with the enlightenment philosophies of the day. Dharmic thought and scriptures have been the preserve of the Temple ‘Mutt’, as a response to the centuries of non-Hindu rule in India apart from the 75-year Maratha rule in between the Mughals and the British. How many of our textbooks teach us that datapoint?

The absence of dharmic scriptures from the state archives is instructive. We therefore must mainstream the dark and hidden archives in family and temple collections of texts and photographs to construct the knowledge architecture for the future generations by documenting these by the way of the digital archive. A museum fire in Rio and a burning Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, should give enough cues for preservation in the digital realm, to complement the physical documents. 

The Tilak Family Archive with its Twitter Outreach makes the rich legacy of ‘Kesari’ contemporary and relevant.  The past needs resources in the present to preserve the heritage for scholars and the general population to know more about oneself. The past is ever being written in the light of new evidence, and politics gets animated with it and becomes ever relevant. 

Manishankar Prasad

Manishankar Prasad is an environmental engineer, sociologist, researcher and writer. He has studied at the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He has published across numerous national and international platforms such as the New Indian Express and the Huffington Post, been a panellist on Al Jazeera International and BBC World, and has been interviewed by Forbes and The Guardian.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd