The Loss of Hindustan: The Invention of India
by Dr Manan Ahmed Asif
Harvard University Press 2021, 336pp
Reviewed by: Dr Zahra Shah, London School of Economics
14 January 2022
Manan Ahmed Asif’s The Loss of Hindustan: The Invention of India (2021) is a welcome addition to the list of books reviewed by Bloomsbury Pakistan. In bringing this important book to those already reviewed, Bloomsbury Pakistan has widened its stance on the kind of scholarship that can be considered relevant to understandings of contemporary Pakistan. By and large, the focus of these reviews has tended to be on works which deal directly with the postcolonial state of Pakistan, and the precolonial past considered to be almost exclusively the purview of modern India. Indeed, it is with explaining, and possibly correcting, this disconnect that Asif’s book is concerned.
In The Loss of Hindustan, Manan Ahmed Asif traces the development of the concept of ‘Hindustan’ in medieval historiography – a concept which, he argues, was powerfully reformulated as an ‘exemplary and inclusive space’ (p.4) in the work of the early seventeenth-century historian, Muhammad Qasim “Firishta”. Based at the Adil Shahi court in the Deccan, Firishta produced what Asif considers to be the most comprehensive vision of Hindustan, one that far exceeds the conceptual possibilities of the modern idea of ‘India’. The intellectual history of Hindustan is twinned, thus, with the story of its erasure in the eighteenth century, when Firishta’s work found itself in the hands of colonial ‘soldier-scribes’. Over the course of colonial rule, the concept of Hindustan was supplanted by that of a five-thousand-year-old India, in which Muslims could only feature as outsiders and invaders. In other words, what had, by the early fourteenth century, come to be an ‘actively formative project’ reflecting on the ‘Muslim political, social and cultural role in Hindustan’ vanished ‘without a trace’ under colonial rule.
Through an investigation of Firishta’s archive – the materials he used to construct his notion of Hindustan, and the places, people and histories that were made possible by it – Asif explicates what the concept of Hindustan might have entailed, and the significance of its erasure. The book’s main chapters follow a three-fold structure in exploring these themes. Each chapter begins by foregrounding colonial (mis)renderings and elisions of Firishta’s writings, followed by the work of ‘Hindustani’ writers who had preceded Firishta and whose writings constituted a self-aware and ethically oriented historiographical tradition to which Firishta also belonged. It is within this tradition that Firishta is finally located and ‘properly read’ by Asif, and that the originality and implications of his concept of Hindustan can be properly understood. In this regard, one aspect of Firishta’s originality lay in departing from previous conventions of centring such works around dynasties or genealogical tables (beginning, usually with Adam) and instead using place as the principal means of organisation.
What emerges from Asif’s readings of Firishta is a Hindustan that is capacious and varied, where Qur’anic and Dharmic time are interwoven to create a past that is capable of holding diverse groups and individuals, and that offered ‘multifaceted ways of being in space [and] belonging to a place’ (p.102). Importantly, Firishta’s was an ethical history that is ‘nurtured in the belief that Hindustan has a future’. Thus, Muslim historians from Baihaqi (d.1040) and Juzjani (d. 1260) to Mir Khwand (d. 1498) and Abu’l Fazl (d.1602) viewed themselves as participating in an ongoing project which ‘reformulated histories of encounters as histories of belonging’ (p.117). As Asif tells it, from the fourteenth century onward, Hindustan was no longer seen only as a borderland, but as a homeland for many such writers. This, along with careful readings of Firishta’s ‘archive’, is Asif’s most significant contribution – the demonstration of the existence, not of an accidentally harmonious past, but of an intellectual genealogy that worked consciously to imagine pasts to accommodate such futures through an engagement with the concept of Hindustan.
This, however, is not something that comes across immediately in Asif’s book. One drawback is the repeated emphasis on the colonial erasure of this Hindustani archive – an aspect that is too familiar to require reiteration in each chapter. For Asif, the process of the erasure of the concept of Hindustan began with the ‘European arrival’ to the subcontinent and the European project of ‘describing the geography of Hindustan, breaking it down, extracting riches, and finally surveying and mapping it back into a whole, finally named, British India’ (p.105). Central to this endeavour was Alexander Dow, whose translation of Firishta’s history in 1768 reframed Firishta’s history and ‘split the history of Hindustan from the history of India.’ Hindustan ‘belonged to the Muhammadans, or the Mughals, and the latter to the Hindus.’ (p.17). The political history of Muslims, and with it the concept of Hindustan, were presented as being external to the subcontinent’s past, while the ‘internal’ past was constituted by a timeless and static Hindu population. According to Asif, Dow’s immensely influential work stood at the head of a tradition of works by ‘soldier-scribes’ who rendered Firishta’s work into English. Segregating Muslim Hindustan from Hindu India, these writers repackaged Firishta’s history to tell a story of ‘Muslim fanaticism and temple destruction’ and the oppression of ‘the Hindu people’ (pp.17-18). Although Asif’s insistence on the impossibility of accessing the history of Hindustan without also narrating its erasure is convincing, bringing this to bear on the structure of every chapter detracts from Asif’s nuanced readings of Firishta and his intellectual forebears – which are far more opaque to most post-colonised readers than the colonial episteme. While this sense of loss is clearly intentional (p.225), it reproduces a teleology in which colonialism seems to have been inevitable.
Related to this is Asif’s discussion of Firishta’s non-European interlocutors. Despite the brief discussion of the ‘afterlives’ of Firishta’s history, Asif’s focus is on works produced by employees of the East India Company, which resulted in a dramatic and almost totalising colonisation of Firishta’s work. In the final chapter, ‘A History for Hindustan’, for instance, Asif turns to Muhammad Zaka’ullah, whose own history, Tarikh-i Hindustan, was written after 1857 when ‘Hindustan’ as a polity was already a ‘dim memory’, and whose own conception of Hindustan was, as Asif notes, identical with British India (p.188). A discussion of the circulation and reception of Firishta’s work by his subcontinental interlocutors immediately after its production would have been welcome. Instead, it feels as though the ‘last word’ really lies with Alexander Dow and his intellectual successors.
It is critical to remember that Asif does not seek to ‘recover’ the concept of Hindustan. What he asks of us is a much more active engagement with this concept in order to ‘re-enliven’ (p. 62) it, stating that ‘[i]t is our collective task to re-imagine the past’ in ways that ‘do not yield to the majoritarian present.’ While Asif is alluding to both Hindutva and Muslim ideologies of exclusion here, it is the former with which links are forged most directly by this book, as much of the focus is on the colonial creation of an ancient past for India. Rather ironically, this speaks largely to contemporary India, rather than the far more capacious polity expressed by the concept of ‘Hindustan’. The fate of Hindustan in the hands of post-colonised Muslim elites in Pakistan, for instance, would have helped to make a stronger case for the relevance of the concept for rethinking Muslim majoritarianism. In this regard, it may be productive to read Asif’s book alongside Maryam Wasif Khan’s recently published Who Is a Muslim? Orientalism and Literary Populisms.
These minor issues notwithstanding, The Loss of Hindustan is a fine book that succeeds in the author’s aim to breathe life into the ethical intellectual traditions of Hindustan. The fact that we understand this history produced at a Deccani court in the seventeenth century to be relevant to the politics of modern South Asia is a reminder of the historical force and potential of the concept of Hindustan.
© Bloomsbury Pakistan 2022
This is a brilliant book review. I am not a historian abut this review has kindled a yearning in me to learn more about Hindustan – to ‘re-enliven’ this past through this book.