An exhibition organised by the Lalit Kala Akademi in Delhi earlier in 2023, titled “Glory of Medieval India: Manifestation of the unexplored Indian dynasties, 8th-18th centuries”, was proof of a much-dreaded pudding. That the current ruling dispensation is aggressively saffronising history is no secret, but the brazen omission of all Muslim kingdoms and dynasties in the exhibition confirmed what many of us have known for some time.

Through the corridors of the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), along the frenzied renaming and remaking of Mughal-era heritage structures and cities, via manipulation of National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) textbooks, and by means of rendering the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) toothless, the BJP-led government is erasing Muslim contributions to India’s history and culture. Their reason was articulated by ICHR member secretary Umesh Ashok Kadam, who said that he didn’t consider Muslim dynasties Indian dynasties. “Those people (Muslims) came from the Middle East and didn’t have a direct connection with Indian culture.”

The ICHR has been tasked by the State to write a multi-volume revised history of India – no, Bharat – and one can reasonably guess the nature of its contents. While their stated intention of including neglected or forgotten histories deserves praise, their omissions-by-design stink of bigotry.

Challenging the Juggernaut

It is this juggernaut that The Indians: Histories of a Civilization attempts to challenge. A comprehensive volume, edited by noted linguist and cultural theorist Ganesh N Devy, journalist and author Tony Joseph, and professor of history and archaeology Ravi Korisettar, it brings together a vast range of essays on the history of India, with themes ranging from archaeology, anthropology, and linguistics, to religion, culture, and the arts.

The book is divided into seven parts: The Evolution of Humans and Their Life Conditions; Foundations, Emergence, and the Decline of Civilization; The Language Mix and Philosophies in Ancient India; Cultures, Sub-Nationalities, and Region; Colonialism; Towards Federalism – Social and Political Movements; and India since Independence. These sections include a whopping 101 essays, bookended by an introductory note by Devy and a detailed afterword by noted historian Vinay Lal.

This breathtaking width of topics is necessary to accommodate the intention of the book, that is, to map the “histories” of a civilisation. Note that the title is purposefully plural because the story of India is the story of each one of us; stories told in multiples, and indeed sometimes, in contradictions. Editor GN Devy, however, warns in the introduction, “The many-ended openness of history as a field of enquiry allows majoritarian politics and autocratic regimes to replace the narrative of history by irrational and untenable claims.” Recently, these claims have tended towards an undesirable homogenisation.

This book stands in stark contrast to the bull-headed insistence on “oneness” with campaigns promoting one nation, one election, one language, one religion, and whatnot. Those who insist on “unity” forget the important caveat of diversity which gives India its uniquely pluralistic legacy. The book aims to uphold the “scientific view of history” while countering the “ideologically-charged attempts to distort the history of South Asia” with “fantasy, hallucination, and wishful nostalgia.”

As many Indias as there are Indians

Standing up against the State’s massive resources has been no mean feat, especially for Devy, who produced this work “in extreme financial difficulties.” And yet, the pages of The Indians offer unparalleled wealth to students of history and seekers of pluralistic perspectives.

The first part of the book traces the evolution of the Indian subcontinent from the earliest times, drawing a picture of the region using data from palaeoclimatology and population genetics. Tony Joseph’s essay on migrations harks back to his pathbreaking book Early Indians: The Story of Our Ancestors and Where We Came From, which almost entirely changed the narrative of our ancestry. In this essay, Joseph uses the metaphor of an “Indian Demographic Pizza” which I found equally charming and memorable.

This pizza, he says, comprises a base of Out of Africa migrants who form about 50%-65% of the population. Slathered on this base is a Harappan sauce comprising Indians from North and South India, who form the “cultural glue” of beliefs and practices found all over the country. And finally, there are later-day migrants who are the cheese and toppings of this pizza. Joseph’s theory is firmly supported by genetic evidence and is a great reminder to all those who like to stake a primacy claim on the land.

Takes based on population genetics are supported by essays on archaeology, and anthropology, where proto histories are concerned. With historical essays too, one finds multiple perspectives such as those from history, anthropology, geology, philosophy, polity, economics, astrophysics, linguistics, Sanskrit and Pali literature, and even Vedic studies. Contributors to the volume include renowned scholars from both, Indian and foreign universities, and some of the names I recognise and admire include K Paddayya, Rajesh Kocchar, Mugdha Gadgil, Rajmohan Gandhi, Rochelle Pinto, Richard Eaton, and Urvashi Butaliya to name a few.

Old as new and new as old

The perspectives in many of these essays challenge extant narratives. For example, in her essay on “Buddhism in Early India,” Naina Dayal notes how recent revisions favour the date of the 4th century BCE to situate Buddha’s life, as opposed to the more popular date of the 6th century BCE. Similarly, in her essay titled “Contact with Indo-European / Indo-Iranian Languages,” Meera Visvanathan refutes the popular notion of Sanskrit being the mother language of other ancient European languages like Greek and Latin. She points out that global scholarship accepts a now-extinct language named “Proto-Indo European” as the mother language from which Greek, Latin, and even Sanskrit emerged. As with Joseph’s population pizza, these findings challenge us to adapt to new timelines and truths.

The “new” offerings in this book are not, however, limited to revisions. Many topics that are rarely part of mainstream texts find a place in it as well. For example, many students would not have access to the history of pre-Shivaji Maharashtra, Pali and Prakrit literature, culture in pre-modern Deccan, the heterogeneity of Telangana, histories of the Northeastern states, multilingualism in pre-modern Bengal, or the Adivasi movements until they went into specialisations.

One may question the necessity of these niche themes, but it is only through this vast representation that we may break out of our habit of equating the history of the Gangetic plain with the history of India. It is precisely through remembering histories vastly different and distant from our own that we will come to truly see and believe that there are as many Indias as there are Indians.

A great feature of this volume is that most of the essays are short, averaging about two to three pages. In these pages, the authors share an overview of the most important touch-points of the topic, notes on the most current scholarship on the subject, research questions for the missing pieces, and so on. A reader may jump right into the topic of their choosing to find some excellent starting points for deeper research, or quickly come away with essentials on it.

Each essay is written with scholarly objectivity and tries neither to glorify achievements nor gloss over failures. As a people who have become used to exaltations in our national narrative, the mad bid to become the “Vishwa Guru” in all things, it is a gentle reminder of our humanness and our fallacies. Between its hard binding is the soft lesson that greatness does not lie in being the first or the fastest or the oldest or the largest. It is in seeing, accepting, and loving everything that makes us a unique people called the “Indians”.

The Indians: Histories of a Civilization, edited by GN Devy, Tony Joseph, and Ravi Korisettar, Aleph Book Company.