The Indo-Pakistan problem — To be or Not to be

Wagah Border

THIS ESSAY WAS WRITTEN IN 2016 in the immediate aftermath of the URI ATTACKS with the aim of bringing some nuance in the increasingly binary discussions of Pakistan. Looking back at it in 2020 there are a few points in the essay I mildly disagree with but on the whole, I stand by my arguments. 

For anyone willing to read a shorter -TL-DR version find the link HERE:

Note: This is not a scholarly analysis of Indo-Pak question but an essay ((*mildly subjective)) on the question with references being presented for most of the essay. 

Every well-read Indian who has thought enough about the India-Pakistan issue will have faced Hamlet’s dilemma — “To be or not to be”. It’s fair to assume that national patience, with everything related to Pakistan, is waning very fast nowadays aided by the explosion of social media. Simply put — most Indians have had enough of this shit for 69 + years (the Idea of Pakistan being older than Pakistan). The leftist solution to the Pakistan problem has always been the Aman ki Asha narrative. The reactionary position of some of the Right-wing is to totally boycott anything related to Pakistan every-time a terrorist attack takes place in India. This position though backed by popular opinion at times like this seems to be no closer to a permanent solution to the problem. To come up with potential solutions for this problem, we need to discuss both these approaches and we also need to dig deep into the Nation-state of Pakistan.


Continue reading “The Indo-Pakistan problem — To be or Not to be”


What is indigenous about Indian civilization?

The curry to the right contains potatoes, tomatoes, and chili pepper. All of these are features of Indian cuisine from the last 500 years, as they are New World crops. Unsurprisingly, they were often brought by the Portuguese and spread out from Goa. But, at this point, it’s hard to deny these have been thoroughly indigenized. So this brings me to some questions I have for readers (non-troll answers only, I may start banning people who answer unseriously, since I’m very busy this week and don’t want to waste time with drivel):

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Belief and Reclamation

For eons, ascetics and wanderers would journey to the sacred snow-clad Himalayas to test the fires of their belief. Where the skies met the earth and the heavens met the material world, humans met enlightenment; and their discoveries would cascade down the subcontinent. These beliefs would be ossified by ritual and rite, and a culture would engulf the land between the great Himalayas and an endless ocean – India, that is Bhārata.

And it is this legendary journey from the foothills of the Himalayas to the tip of the subcontinent that a civilizational epic takes place – the Rāmāyana. On August 5th, 2020, the ancient song of Valmiki will echo in the villages, in the cities, in the deserts, the fields, the jungles, the mountains, the waters, and especially in the minds of those who believe. A civilization will enact its long-awaited reclamation.

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Browncast Episode 112: Tarun Sridharan from Odd Compass – Rajas and Sultans

Another BP Podcast is up. You can listen on LibsynAppleSpotify,  and Stitcher (and a variety of other platforms). Probably the easiest way to keep up the podcast since we don’t have a regular schedule is to subscribe to one of the links above!

You can also support the podcast as a patron. The primary benefit now is that you get the podcasts considerably earlier than everyone else. This website isn’t about shaking the cup, but I have noticed that the number of patrons plateaued a long time ago.

I would though appreciate more positive reviews! Alton Brown’s “Browncast” has 30 reviews on Stitcher alone! Help make us the biggest browncast! At least at some point.

This episode features Razib and Akshar talking history with Tarun Sridharan, the man behind a very interesting Youtube Channel – Odd Compass. We discuss the Malacca Sultanate, Vijaynagara’s downfall, Maratha success, and various other topics in history. Make sure to check out his Instagram and especially youtube channel which has beautiful and well-researched videos on history (especially Indian!).

Check out his latest video on the history of war elephants:


The myth of Brahmin supremacy!

It seems in this globalized world many intellectual movements deploy the same abstractions. For example, the terms “Brahmin privilege” and “Brahmin supremacy” are clearly constructed as perfect analogs to “white privilege” and “white supremacy.” Brahmins cannot have their own independent history, but operationalize a general model of power relations predicated on the white-black dynamic in the United States that developed in the 19th-century (nevermind that Brahmins were in existence long before this).

This piece, Anti-Blackness Goes Back To Ancient Times, has this passage which I know to be promoting ideas which are false:

Other scholars, such as Harvard’s Suraj Yengde, whose research focuses on the solidarity between Dalits and blacks, say that it wasn’t just outsiders — India gave birth to the original color-based social class system that dates back to the ancient Rig Veda texts, to around 1200 B.C. “The Varna system literally means ‘color’ system, so it’s not surprising that Indians in America have maintained these racist dogmas,” he said. Dalits and the black American experience have strong ties because they are the most disenfranchised people in their communities. “This whole situation is having a global ripple effect. I don’t know if it will bring about much change, but people are definitely talking about it.”

Yengde adds that the caste system and skin color are very much linked. “Oftentimes, we’ll see Brahmins push ideas of colorism, racism, casteism on British and Muslim invaders,” he said. That’s why Yengde doesn’t see the inherent bias of some South Asians going away anytime soon.

Within the piece itself, the author notes that there are early Hadith that express racism against dark-skinned people, presumed to be descended from African slaves. Racial attitudes were an issue in the early Islamic period, with a Turkic scholar making the case for the value of his own people, and Arab commentaries on Indians refers somewhat negatively upon their “black” complexion. This persists down to the period of Turkic rule when prestigious “white” Muslims (often born in Central Asia) were distinguished from local “black” Muslims (often descended from converts). Modern colloquial color categories in the Gangetic plain date to this period.

As far as the British, their ideas of race, color, and caste, were shaped by the Atlantic trade and slavery, as well as contacts with Native Americans, long before the rise of the Raj. There was a history of the British Empire long before intense engagement with Indian Brahmins.

I do knot know Yengde’s work, but he seems of a type of modern scholar, taking a meta-narrative, and fitting all of history into that meta-narrative, no matter how absurd. Ultimately this is not a scholarship, but a form of polemic and propaganda.

I stand against this. I will always will.

Addendum: I should note, though there are poor Brahmins, all across India Brahmins tend to be placed nearer the top of the social scale. In a literal sense “Brahmin privilege” is real. But this phenomenon should be explored in the context of Indian history, not a meta-narrative derived from the American context.


Looking to the east: a different secularism than the West

Why Hagia Sophia, Turkey And The Charismatic Figure Of Erdogan Bristle With Resonances For India:

The Hagia Sophia reconversion ultimately points to the failure of the Kemalist project of top-down secularism. Much like the state secularism of nationalist authoritarian leaders in Egypt, Iran, Iraq etc had failed to lead to the secularisation of the wider society, it seems Turkey is no longer the exception it was long hoped to be. More fundamentally, the failing secularism of Turkey and India begs the question: is secularism even possible in non-Christian/non-Western societies? Without the Western experiences of Reformation and the Enlightenment, hard-fought victories as they were, can non-Western societies value the principles of freedom and secularism? Why is it that, unlike in the West where democratisation and secularism went hand in hand, greater democratisation has seemed to only bring religious chauvinism in India and Turkey?

Too often non-white intellectuals, in particular those from the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East, look only to Europe as their historical exemplars.

There is a legitimate argument that secularism in the Westphalian nation-state context, and using the model of the American republic, is the contingent outcome of the Reformation, and in particular Radical Protestant anti-state sentiment as well as Calvinist disenchantment with the world, and the sieve of the Enlightenment. But I don’t think this is what the author meant. Rather, I think the author is highlighting the importance of religious identity across the world.

In India and Islamic societies, your religion defines you in a very deep way. Religion and state have been deeply connected. The American and French models are objects of emulation but from a deeply alien tradition.

But these are not the only models and outcomes. China, Korea, and Japan are all societies where public religious identity is not nearly as important as it is in the Indian subcontinent and the world of Islam. I am not saying that people in East Asia are not religious or do not have supernatural beliefs. On the whole, they are less religious and more atheistic. But looking at religious affiliation numbers overstates this truth.

Rather, these are societies where religion does not dominate public political life because they have a particular history with organized religion which subordinates it to the political life of the society and nation.

Let me give three examples

– In the 9th century, the Tang dynasty expropriated property from Buddhist monasteries and defrocked monks and nuns. This is due to the fact that Buddhism was starting to become as powerful in China as the Catholic Church was to become in Europe.

– In the 15th century, the Joseon dynasty of Korea suppressed Buddhism in cities and drove the religion to the mountains. The percentage of Buddhists in Korea has actually increased in the 20th century for this reason.

– In the 16th century, Oda Nobunaga broke the power of Buddhist monasteries, in part by burning the down.

There is a history out there that is not European. Read some books.


Maratha Mindset: How to Control Your History and Emotions to Grasp the Future on Your Terms

The film Panipat is on Netflix, and I watched a bit of mostly for anthropological reasons. It seems a typical melodramatic Bollywood gloss on this period, and I found the depiction of Ahmad Shah Durrani rather amusing.

But it brought to mind a broader issue that I’ve been reflecting on over the past few years: the re-pivoting of Indian historical imagination around the Maratha moment. Most recently my thoughts have been sharpened by the goings-on in the United States, as we reevaluate our own historical figures and events. History is what it is, but the interpretation is multi-layered, and the process of analysis is subject to an infinite chain of point and counterpoint.

For example, Ulysses S. Grant has been rehabilitated because broadly on the questions of racial justice he was on the “right side of history,” though ultimately his efforts failed. This, after a period in the 20th-century when Southern historians slandered his character and competence in a clever trick of defeating him long after his death through control of historical memory.

And yet, if you talk to a Native American their view of Grant is far less positive. This is due to the fact that Grant participated in and executed the American government’s wars against Indian tribes.

The final verdict on Grant and his legacy depends on where you stand. The elements of history which lead up to this judgment though are far more solid. The terminus of the analysis is conditional on the analyst, but the facts themselves are invariant.

So how should we view the Marathas and the Mughals? When I wrote Haunted by History I alluded to general issues I’ve noticed in Indians in relation to their past. I have read enough history to be aware of the Marathas as a factual matter. But my conscious understanding of what they meant to Indians, and what they could have been, was stimulated by the arguments of a Hindu nationalist friend of mine.

In the 19th and 20th century various nationalist movements rose up which recaptured the political system from cosmopolitan and/or alien elites. The Chinese took back their state from the Manchus. Across Europe, ethnic groups such as the Lithuanians and Hungarians, submerged, sublimated, or subordinated, rose up and asserted their national identity. Lithuanians and Hungarians, to give two examples, had great histories as nations in the past, but by the early modern period, their elites had become subordinated and assimilated. The Lithuanian nobility became totally Polonized after the Union of Lubin. The rise of Habsburgs, and the fall of the Hungarians to the Ottomans, resulted in a Magyar nation which was under German and Turkish domination for centuries. The Dual Monarchy period after 1868 allowed the Hungarian nobility more freedom and status, though ironically they continued to oppress and subordinate the ethnic minorities under their hegemony in the eastern part of Austria-Hungary.

The emergence of these new identities entailed a reinterpretation of the valence of historical events.

Before we get to that, let’s consider the Marathas, of all castes and persuasions. The debates I have seen often end up at two antipodes. On the one hand, the Marathas are depicted as proto-Hindu nationalists, defending themselves against Muslim oppressors, and giving their swords in the service of the broader pan-ethnic Hindu Rashtra. The contrasting position is that the Marathas were motivated by more prosaic concerns, and their Hinduism was a secondary or ancillary element to their identity. In fact, one might problematize what “Hindu” even meant in the 17th and 18th centuries. That is, they didn’t have a “Hindu identity,” but had a Maratha identity, and Maratha religious practices and beliefs.

Both of these views are I think wrong-headed in understanding this period and these people. Humans are complex, and not cartoons. Someone like Shijavi may have reimagined who he was, what he could become, over his lifetime. In the beginning, he fought to survive. By the end, he fought to conquer.

Certainly, it seems probable, to give a different example, that Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor, reconceptualized his relationship to his new faith over the decades and also reimagined what it might mean for Rome. This is a different reading than that of those who assert that Constantine was never really a Christian because in the early years of his acceptance of the new faith he seems to still have nodded to aspects of the Solar cult which he was once a devotee, or of those who assert that he was a zealous Christian as they would understand it after he issued the Edict of Milan.

Where does this leave us? I have spoken earlier of the fact that to be frank, many people from Uttar Pradesh who are Hindu seem somewhat “broken.” Perhaps I should use a different word, as what I’m trying to get at is ineffable. But I believe that hundreds of years of continuous Turco-Muslim domination, and the historical predations upon their sacred geography, has left an imprint. Their land was the heart of the Mughal Empire, the shining exemplar of Turco-Muslim civilization. Though the Indian religion and self-identity maintained itself in a resilient fashion, it was subaltern. Though never sublimated as the Lithuanians were, it was subordinated.

Mount Rushmore means a very different thing to Native Americans than it does to white Americans. To many Hindus from the Gangetic plain, the apogee of the Mughals means something different than it does to Urdu-speaking Muslims. One man’s glory is another man’s shame. One man’s seduction is another man’s cuckoldry.

Which brings me to the “Maratha mindset.” What do I mean by this? I mean a self-assured, self-confident attitude. The sense that the arc of history bends toward the Dharma. The Maratha project failed in the end, but its ultimate failure was due to the reality of European hegemony and the rise of white supremacy across the globe. It seems possible in an alternative history where European domination occurred later, or in an incomplete fashion, the Maratha polities would have served as the ultimate basis for what became the Indian nation-state. This does not mean that Maratha would be the language of the Indian nation-state, or that the culture of the northwest Deccan would be hegemonic. An analogy here might be the role that elites from the Chūgoku region of western Japan played in driving modernization in the Meiji period, before eventually ceding ground to the resurgent Kanto region around Tokyo. Chūgoku was the nucleus, but only the beginning, the “starter.” The final product is always richer and more multi-faceted.

The moral of this post is that the Hindus of the Gangetic plain resisted Islamicization through a process of fracturing into localities, with a broader civilizational identity. But the resistance and centuries of Mughal domination crushed cross-regional asabiya, which is necessary for nation-building. Obviously the nation is built, and Uttar Pradesh in particular is politically central. But the psychology of the Hindus of this region has to move from negation, reaction, to positive action. They need to shake off their history and move forward into the future. They need to adopt the Maratha mindset.


Lord Indra the brutal!

In the post below a question comes up: what about the Indo-Aryans?.

First, before we move on, I want to stipulate that I am going to assume that the Indo-Aryans were intrusive around ~1500 BC. I believe this is true, though I understand not everyone does. Stipulating that this is true, was the intrusion brutal? Looking into the admixture coefficients it seems plausible that the Indo-Aryan ancestry genome-wide in the Upper and Middle Gangetic plains, the heart of Aryavarta, is in the range of 10-20%. For various reasons, I lean toward a higher estimate. This is lower than the proportion of “steppe” ancestry in Northern Europe, and in the range in parts of Southern Europe (though still lower than much of Southern Europe).

The contrast with Turco-Muslims could not be more striking. The distinct part of Turco-Muslim ancestry is East Asian. Some of this can be found in groups like Pashtuns, and in a few rare cases in Indo-Muslims, but it is entirely absent in the non-Muslim population. The exceptions are totally comprehensible; Indians from the Himalayan and Northeastern fringes. If the Muslims did rape Hindu women they killed them all. This is not implausible on the face of it, but in the context of human civilization, it seems unlikely. Rather, the situation more like the rape of the Sabine women is the norm (I believe most of the sexual exploitation of Hindu Indian women eventually resulted in Indian Muslims).

To be frank: I believe that the Indo-Aryan intrusion into what became Aryavarta resulted in more death proportionally than the Turco-Muslim intrusion. There are several reasons why this might be.

Like the migration of the Rohirrim into part of the fallen kingdom of Arnor, I suspect that the Indo-Aryans arrived in a landscape where the machinery of the Indus Valley Civilization  (IVC) had already fallen apart due to the early Bronze Age climatic shock (which impacted West Asia as well). What the Indo-Aryans encountered probably resembled the petty kings of Dark Age Greece after the fall of the citadel culture.

In short, one reason that the Indo-Aryan impact was so strong is that Indian agricultural society was much thinner and less dense in the second millennium BC than in the second millennium AD. The threads which bound societies together were much more robust after thousands of years of institutional development, and economic advancement and technological innovation.

Another reason is that elite ideologies and outlooks had changed. It is entirely plausible that the Indo-Aryans and the native elites faced each other in a game of animal competition and elimination. The strategy of later barbarians, whether it be Huns or Khitai, was to extract tribute from agricultural societies which produced much more aggregate wealth and specialized luxury goods. This may not be a situation that occurred in much of Eurasia in the second millennium BC, as conquest elites perceived themselves to be primary producers rather than extractors of tax. As such, no accommodation may have been possible in many more cases than would be true later.

Peter Turchin has argued that violence probably peaks in the “pre-state polity” phase. The emergence of complex institutions and world religions in the first millennium BC was part of a process of smoothing over the autocratic brutality of the new regimes. The reality is that despite the ideological differences, the Turco-Muslims who arrived in India were primarily motivated by material considerations of extraction.

So what’s going on with the different views of the Turco-Muslims vs. the Indo-Aryans? Clearly time matters. The Turco-Muslim hegemony lasted into the early modern period. It is raw. In contrast, the Indo-Aryan fusion with the Indian substrate occurred before history. The keyword here is fusion. Despite what I believe are the violent antecedents of the pairing of fair Arjuna and dark Draupadi, out of the union was born the culture and people of North India. In contrast, the Turco-Muslims introduced a religion and culture which was incompletely digested and synthesized.

If the Turoc-Muslims and their Indo-Islamic descendants severed connection with West Asia and broader institutions such as the Naqshbandi tariqa, then a synthesis might have emerged. As it is, the synthesis was frozen and incomplete. The Muslim people of the Indian subcontinent are ancestrally no different than the non-Muslim people, and speak similar languages and eat similar food, but their identity is deeply different and distinct. In some ways, they exist as an inversion or negation of the native religious traditions, with their tacit polytheism and explicit idolatry (of course there are exceptions). Though some interaction has long occurred between Islam and Indian darshanas, it is not reciprocal and explicit. The metaphysical presuppositions diverge.

So there you go. At the end of the day problem is rather straightforward and plain. Like oil and water Indian Islam and non-Islam remain separate and wary, each unable to absorb or marginalize the other. If Muslims were a few percents of the population some level of synthesis would naturally occur. Conversely, if Muslims were more than 90 percent of the population, likely more liberal and progressive Muslims be curious about mining and rediscovering their Indian religious traditions and history. But as it is, we’re in an unstable equilibrium in between.


Haunted by history

Aurangzeb, a good Muslim

Today Genghis Khan is a hero in Mongolia. This, despite the fact that the rise of his Mongol Empire was associated with mass death. This mass death resulted in reforestation, which changed atmospheric CO2 levels.

There are many histories of the rise of the Mongo Empire, but Frank McLynn’s Genghis Khan: His Conquests, His Empire, His Legacy, is probably the most balanced treatment.

During Genghis Khan’s lifetime, the most impactful and catastrophic conquests were of Central Asia and the obliteration of the Khwarezmian Empire. After the death of Genghis Khan, his heirs further obliterated the world of Islam, including killing the last significant Caliphs of the Abbassids. To a great extent, Genghis Khan ended with finality the world of the Iranian people of Turan, leaving the Tajiks as the Persianate rump. Economic historians have suggested that the destruction of Iranian agriculture (e.g., the qanat system) that occurred during the Mongol conquest was so great that the region did not recover until the modern era.

Muslim historians, some under the service of Mongol successor dynasties, have taken a mixed view of Genghis Khan and those who descend from him. On the one hand, their destructive impact is impossible to deny. The Mongols were one of the last of the steppe nomads to explode out of the Eurasian interior, but they were one of the largest military-political shocks, destroying multiple polities. But descent from Genghis Khan became prestigious in the Turkic world.

This is somewhat discomfiting and paradoxical because Genghis Khan was proudly pagan. And, it was not in dispute that the Mongol invasions had been brutally destructive. The prestige and glamor was clearly a nod to the fact that Genghis Khan’s conquests were evidence of glory sanctioned by God.

Despite Genghis Khan’s pagan beliefs, and the negative impact that the Mongol conquests had on Islam, somehow elements of Mongolic ruling culture became normative among the Muslims of Central Asia. This is how the name “Khan” became associated primarily with Muslims in the Indian subcontinent. Though there are non-Muslim Khan’s in South Asia, on the whole, the surname is associated with those of Muslim background, which is ironic given that it is a purely pagan title.

The details and subtleties of this history are on my mind because of the conversation I had yesterday with Neha Srivastava. It strikes me that in some ways she is haunted by history. In particular, the history of Turco-Islamic domination and brutality in the Indian subcontinent. She mentions offhand a Bollywood star giving her son the name Timur, which is reminiscent of a brutal Turco-Muslim conqueror, Timur the Lame.

This is where details became important. Neha no doubt remembers the brutal sack of Delhi. Though most of the dead were not Muslim, it is important to remember that Timur’s target was a polity ruled by Turco-Muslims, like himself. Importantly, and ironically, despite being a Muslim, Timur the Lame wrought his destruction exclusively in Muslim lands, or lands ruled by Muslims (India).

Though many facts of history are beyond dispute (e.g., Timur’s sacking of Delhi), the valence with which we recollect them varies. The Mongols view Genghis Khan as a great leader and a cultural figure of worth and note. Muslims take a more mixed view. Meanwhile, for European Christians and the Chinese, the Mongols are a purely destructive force. Whether the Mongols and Genghis Khan are worthy and of admiration is clearly filtered through a cultural lens.

Because I’m a bit of a Mongol history nerd, the name Timur to me actually is not closely associated with Timur the Lame! It as in fact closely associated with Khans of the Yuan Dynasty of China and Mongolia, who never converted to Islam. But then, I’m not an Indian Hindu.

Nevertheless, the issue of the name Timur is an illustration of the general phenomenon: a lack of the acknowledgment of the cultural brutality and domination which Turco-Muslims wrought upon the Indian subcontinent and its native peoples in the period between 1200 and 1800. Six hundred years of domination to varying degrees.

I will interject here an objection to what I see as some hyperbole. Oftentimes Hindus make the case for almost Nazi-like domination of Islamic power in medieval and early modern India. There are two major objections to this extreme characterization.

First, premodern societies did not have totalitarian state capacity. Both the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic polities were fixated on a universal state religion. But their coercive power had limitations. There were pagans who lived in southwest Peloponnese until about the year 1000 A.D., when they were finally converted. State Christianity did not have the power to coerce these isolated people, because the state was thin and weak. Similarly, the pagans of eastern Afghanistan, the Nuristanis, were forcibly converted to Islam in the last decade of the 19th century.

Second, the vast majority of the people in the upper Gangetic plain, the core of Turco-Islamic rule in the Indian subcontinent, remain Hindus. That is, practitioners of native Indian religious traditions. This is simply incompatible with the idea of centuries of totalitarian rule. Again, going back to the first point, premodern states had limited capacity for domination and coercion. The power of the Roman state or the Caliphate was an ideological one, as local officials were bound together by their allegiance to a figurehead. But if a local ruler or administrator wanted to operate at sharp variance from the ultimate ruler, it was entirely feasible. Central state capacity was weak.

The Islamicization of much of the Punjab and Bengal were not a function of the greater state capacity of the Turco-Muslim rulers of northern India. Rather, they were a function of the peculiar characteristics of unstable borderlands, which tend to be much more attracted to dynamic novel ideologies promoted by ruling elites, which in the late medieval and early modern period meant Islam. This is the same reason why Zoroastrianism (and Buddhism) was replaced by Islam much more quickly amongst the populace in Central Asian Turan than in Iran proper. Turan was frontier land. Iran was not.

With that preamble out of the way, it is not disputable to me that the Turco-Muslim conquest elites in the Indian subcontinent engaged in plunder, extraction, and subjugation, in a relatively brutal manner.  The emergence of ISIS in the middle of the teens illustrates the nature of Islamic dominionism. The sexual exploitation of Yazidi women is in keeping with a tradition in Islam of sexual slavery of the women of conquered infidel peoples. This is not unique to Islam of course, but neither is not something one can deny as being part of Islamic history.

Now let us imagine an alternative history where the Turks who invaded the subcontinent were not Muslim. It is quite likely that like the Tai Ahom they would have become Hindu. It is quite likely that initially, they would have been just as brutal and exploitative as the Turco-Muslims. And, if they retained self-awareness as a distinct people for long enough that nature of a ruling class would persist despite the slow accretion of Indian cultural features. But, eventually, they would have become fully Indian, and gone into the mists of a legend like the Huna of yore.

The premodern world was brutal. The brutality of the Turco-Muslims was not unique. Julius Caesar may have been responsible for the deaths of 1 million Gauls. It must be noted here that the death was often not by direct killing, but through the starvation that occurred when populations were dislocated and dispersed. The brutality of the premodern world has an instrumental, material, rationale. Conquest was a way for elites to extract wealth out of the population. Death was not optimal, because extraction required bodies, but capture may have entailed some death.

Brutality was necessary, but not sufficient, to generate the trauma of modern Hindus. 

But again, I need to step back, and admit something: there is some evidence that brutality is accentuated across ‘meta-ethnic’ boundaries. This comes from research by the quantitative historian Peter Turchin. He shows that civil wars tend to be characterized by less atrocity, while the most brutal killings occur across civilizational boundaries. The sack of Jerusalem during the First Crusade, for example.

This implies that the Turco-Muslim treatment of local Indian populations would be more exploitative and inhuman with a lack of common identity. The Turco-Muslims considered themselves white, and the natives black, and retained a separate language for much of their tenure. And, of course, they had a distinct religion from the native people.

In the modern Middle East, all of the subcontinental people are objects of contempt from the native Arab Muslims. But non-Muslims in particular seem to be the targets of unmitigated contempt (and, due to legal inequality, targeted for sexual predation).

Though on the whole, I would argue that the religious difference between the conquest elites and the native people makes the former more brutal toward the latter, I think the biggest distinction is that the conquest elites are more culturally destructive.

Neha discussed at length the impact on the temples of native peoples. Cultural displacement in terms of public religion is a key sign of hostility between the ruled and the rulers. The end of paganism in the Roman world began with the shutting down of public temples.  Private paganism in household shrines continued for decades, but it slowly withered. I have written at length elsewhere about the robustness of Hinduism in the face of Islamic rule, so I will go no further on that issue. Rather, note that despite attacks on public Hinduism in North India the religion maintained and persisted due to its decentralized nature.

The crux of the issue is that modern Hindu Indians have to acknowledge that the core of Aryavarta was dominated politically by Muslims between 1200 and 1750. During this period Indian culture and society changed, some of it through interaction with the Muslim rulers, and some of it in situ. In either case, in some ways separating North Indian culture from the Islamicate period is insuperable. But Hindus know and understand that their role in this culture was as inferiors. Subordinates, if not slaves.

The flip side of this is that the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent are almost all descendants of converts from the local population, and their culture is clearly subcontinental. Though they may bear Arab, Persian, and even Turkic names, their faces are no different from their Hindu neighbors. It is hard to deny that fundamentally their past is one of subordination (as non-Muslims) and capitulation. They assimilated their own subcontinental identity, with brown faces, Indo-Aryan languages, and native cuisines, with the Islamic faith which had them face toward Mecca.

I may quibble and dispute some of the details of Neha’s assertion of inter-generational trauma due to the conquest (as I implied in the podcast, I believe women kidnapped and raped by Muslim elites today have Muslim descendants, so I would suggest that the trauma is elsewhere in the specifics), but the fact remains that Hindus with a profoundly different religious outlook and identity from Muslims are often uncomfortable praising a Mughal Golden Age where their own identity was of a conquered people. Dhimmis.

If Indian was 99% Muslim this might not be a great issue. Arabs can look dimly on their period of Ottoman hegemony in their nation-states, as very few Turks remain (there are Turkomans in Iraq!). But in a place like Uttar Pradesh, 20% of the population is Muslim. These people have a different identity in some deep ways from their Hindu neighbors, despite shared ancestry, language, and cuisine. I have never met a person from this background who was not proud and whistful about the period of Mughal rule in India. They identify this with this dynasty, and its predecessors, because of shared religious identity.

This is the fundamental tension in modern India. A substantial minority of the population is an adherent to the mythology of a conquest elite which the majority perceives to be traumatic, even genocidal. I do not have solutions for this issue, and I am not taking sides because it is really not my history anymore. But there it is.


Book Review: Flashman and the Cobra

Flashman and the Cobra (Adventures of Thomas Flashman Book 2) by [Robert Brightwell]

I am a fan of the original Flashman books by George Macdonald Fraser and just happened to see that a new author is writing a series about Harry Flashman’s uncle Thomas Flashman, so I picked one up to check it out. The conceit is the same in this case: that these are the memoirs of a rogue who happens to have been around in the Napoleonic era. This allows George Brightwell (who is writing this series, the late George Macdonald Fraser having passed away) to write entertaining little books about various campaigns from that era. This particular book starts with Thomas Flashman getting caught in up in a sexual escapade in Napoleonic Paris (complete with a dinner with the first consul himself) that leads him to take up a secret mission to India, where the Wellesley brothers are getting ready for war with the Marathas (the second anglo-Maratha war).

The book is great fun to read and readers will get a flavor of the life and times and a detailed description of 2 major battles (Assaye and Argaon) and one siege (the siege of Gawilgarh). I certainly understand the battles and the siege better than I ever did before, but unfortunately Mr Brightwell is no George Macdonald Fraser, so the book tells us little about the overall war (why it was being fought, what else was going on; for example, Lord Lake was taking Delhi at the same time as these events, but you would not know it from this book). In the case of the Flashman books, you could pretty much get the story of an entire campaign (eg the Indian mutiny is covered really well in “Flashman and the Great Game”), at least from the British point of view. This is not the case with this book. Readers will learn relatively little about the overall picture here (unless they have read other books about the topic). Still, the book taught me more about the battles he does happen to get caught up in than any summary history is likely to teach.  I see that there are a couple of “Sharpe’s” books about the same war (Sharpe’s triumph and Sharpe’s fortress) and they likely cover the same battles in even greater detail, but I have not read them yet. If, like me, you have not read about these battles in any detail, then this is a good book to start. The book also introduced me to the begum of Samru, one of those extraordinary characters that inhabit India between the decline of the Mughals and the stabilization of British rule. Other notable characters who make an appearance in the book include James Skinner (the anglo-Indian adventurer who raised “Skinner’s horse”), but unfortunately none of the other Indian characters of the age get much coverage (or sympathy).

The books have the usual imperialist British rogue POV one expects from Flashman books and the author is clearly in awe of Arthur Wellesley (later the Duke of Wellington) and the fighting qualities of the Scottish Highlanders, but in both cases he has good reason to be a fan. The historical details are accurate as far as they go, but unfortunately lack the “big picture” view one gets in George Macdonald Fraser’s books even as he follows Harry Flashman from bedchamber to narrow (and implausible) escapes in various battles. Still, these books are very inexpensive on Kindle and and this one was certainly a fun read and very informative about the topics he does happen to cover. Worth a quick read.

By the way, the title has almost nothing to do with the book. The cobra shows up once and disappears without much ado.