It is a familiar political argument that India has always been a peace-loving country which never in its history has been aggressive towards the people of any other land. The politics here is that the country has yet had to suffer from invasions (read by the “Muslims”).

When earlier this week, the Prime Minister of India himself made the first part of this argument in a public speech on October 2, it naturally attracted attention. Shoaib Daniyal in “Why does Modi subscribe to the myth that India has never attacked another country” published on October 3 made two sets of criticisms. One, throughout history, different kingdoms in the land that is now India invaded each other. So where then is the question of the kingdoms of India not being aggressive to each other, was one criticism. The second point was that there were also dynasties like the Cholas which crossed the seas to invade kingdoms in South-East Asia.

Reader Sridhar Sikka who wrote to the Readers’ Editor is dismissive of both arguments. The first he says ignores the fact that the wars mentioned took place within what he calls the “Indian space”. The second is supposedly wrong because Wiki (Wikipedia?) is said to state that the Chola wars in South-East Asia were meant to stop piracy in the region.

I did a search of Wikipedia and did not find the entry Sikka mentions. I, however, found this sentence in a larger paragraph titled “Overseas Conquests” in the entry on the Chola dynasty:

"During the reign of Rajaraja Chola I and his successors Rajendra Chola I, Virarajendra Chola and Kulothunga Chola I the Chola armies invaded Sri Lanka, the Maldives and parts of Southeast Asia like Malaysia, Indonesia and Southern Thailand of the Srivijaya Empire in the 11th century."

And even if the Chola invasions were supposedly to stop piracy, it is still a long list of invasions by one dynasty of India during one century.

I do not think Wikipedia is the last word on anything (the deeds of the Cholas are, however, well-known), but I also do not think that a writer or his critic can be selective in citing historical facts and then ask the other to learn history, as Sikka has written saying Daniyal should.

Other questions

The other criticism made by Daniyal is more difficult to settle. True, in ancient and medieval India there was no one nation-state as there is now. There certainly was, however, a sense of one land east of the Indus, and in that sense of one “country” if one can use such a word for a time when the entire sub-continent was made up of numerous kingdoms and principalities. How many of these kingdoms crossed the Indus to the west, the Himalayas to the north and the seas to the east and west in conquest? And if many did not, what were the economic, and social reasons for most kingdoms to stay within “India”? We can’t duck those questions.

That said, the argument of India not being an invader is increasingly being put forward as a powerful slogan to put the country on a moral pedestal above some of the others in the region. When interpreted selectively, the other part of this argument of India forever being a victim can have a pernicious influence on public discourse. This is certainly used today to divide society between the “original residents” and the descendants of the “invaders”.

So this entire issue does need to be carefully analysed. And this is where Daniyal’s comment comes up a bit short. “The Big Story” is only a brief introduction to the daily bulletin and not an article in itself. But a politically powerful claim which is used at different levels and for different purposes can’t be discussed and summarily dismissed in a few hundred words. “The Big Picture” is the day’s introduction to readers of, a bit like the front page of a newspaper, and what is discussed there warrants careful treatment.

I am not sure if any historian of substance has made this argument about a “peace-loving-India-which-has-never-invaded-another-country”. The question may not even be of historical interest. However, historians should be able to tell us what happened and why. After speaking with capable historians and spending time studying the relevant material, a writer wanting to tackle this issue could have produced a solid researched article, which could even have become the last word in the media on this contentious issue.

We know that in settling scores, history is constantly called upon to provide legitimacy to “claims”. Myths often morph into “facts”, which get set in stone over the years. The historian and the public intellectual historian have not always come forward to engage with the politics in such claims of history. If they don’t, it is the job of the journalist/writer to do so.

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