Orient and the Occident: making and unmaking of Predispositions, Prejudices and Partiality in history writing
The orientalist historians did not only reprobate the historical facts but lead astray the people at large
Aaqib Maqbool Khan
Humans appreciate historical facts which are connected to their interests, based either on their personal petty self-satisfying desires or concocting them for some prodigious purposes from the writings of the historians. These may or may not be conducive or fruitful and many a times are expected to breed counterproductive outcomes. Let us reduce this language of “mays” and “may nots” and start with the group of historiographers whose aim was, and continues to be, to make history succumb to the desires of the strict state structures and who accordingly present things unilaterally to please their patronizers. In this way of presentation of the historical anecdotes, the role of orientalists is exclusive and well organised. The other groups like Nationalists and Radical historians later on learnt from them to distort the facts for their committed ends and thus shape their national interests on the stake of others. Their presenting of trouble is relished by modern generations and consequently leads to deeply impacting lives of people in general and administration in particular. An example in this case is the war on medieval infrastructure by Muslim rulers, the interpretation of which became the nude examples of orientalist’s legacy of modern misrepresentation of historical facts by nationalists and radicals alike.
Let me bring into this debate here the orientalist’s mission of presenting facts solely for legitimization of their colonial concerns and interests. The orientalist historians surely worked on huge corpus of literature and produced lot of good works, but they too produced stuff through their history writings which actually destroyed the original aim of history writing. They, through their history writings, tried to meet their mean ends and deliberately trampled what we call in history writing “the objectivity”. No doubt there is a group of historians who always stood firm behind principles of objectivity in presenting the perception of history in its pure and legible form but their impact always remained less.
The orientalists used dichotomy as an instrument to dispel juxtaposition of realism. They used to maintain eastern values as “spiritual” and those of western as “materialistic”. With this philosophy they always got to justify their colonial might with the phrase which came to be known as the “white man’s burden”. “White Man’s Burden” was actually the title of the poem written by Rudyard Kipling to celebrate the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria (22nd June, 1897). The actual aim of all this was to neglect the contribution of eastern societies in fields of culture, polity or even the ability to rule their lands. Accordingly it was asserted that the present of orient was in dark and was also on the decline—the philosophy which they substantiated with the argument that the concept of time in early India was cyclic. Therefore, all human activities were continually repeated in each cycle. Accordingly, it was justified that the burden fell on them to guide the people of “East” and with this, they got to justify the endeavors to overhaul the eastern static societies and political structure alike. The poem of Kipling was actually written about Philippine-American war to encourage American colonization and annexation of the Philippine lands. It justified American colonization to nudge the enterprise of empire on the people—uncivilized and alien, as they were described to hold on and maintain their political structure, for their benefit and greater good. Likewise, every eastern colonized land came under the burden of same phrase.
The basic plea on which the act was passed was to provide a better governance to the people of British India, however what lied beneath the act actually was the direct control of the region, post 1857 revolt. The act empowered the Secretary of the State to send some secret dispatches to India directly without consulting the council.
In a second endeavor after colonization of the lands and fulfillment of the interests, there were meticulous attempts for the avoidance of the use of the word colonialism. The US economist Charles kindlerburger and his book “World Economic Primacy” has special contribution in it. In the case of India, C. A. Bayley’s “Indian Society and the Making of the British Empire” is better case for study. He states the army had got itself “rid of the troublesome Hindi speaking villagers” post 1858 mutiny. The philological bias suggests nothing but shrinking of their role in developing orient cultures and societies. The sole mission behind these false interpretations was to dispossess the people of East and let the colonial empires enjoy the resources of the controlled lands without causing any trouble. The act of 1858 would be better case of exemplifying the idea. The basic plea on which the act was passed was to provide a better governance to the people of British India, however what lied beneath the act actually was the direct control of the region, post 1857 revolt. The act empowered the Secretary of the State to send some secret dispatches to India directly without consulting the council. The whole stuff was justified by Bayley.
“Utilitarian” the second group of historians slightly differed from the former group but had close proximity to the cause of representing and galvanizing eastern societies, cultures and religions. They made no differences on the basis of religions and ethnicity while interpreting eastern societies. They had an active role and also made a deep impact on the administration and legislating processes in the region under Britishers. They acquainted themselves with Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, Bengali, Tamil and other eastern languages and religious ideas before they drew themselves up to write their distorted versions of the eastern history. Under this group of scholars, the role of James Mill and Thomas Macaulay shall always remain illustrious. Mill was the first Utilitarian scholar who made periodization of the Indian history on the basis of religion that was followed by the ruling clique—The Hindu civilization, Muslim civilization and the British period. The intentions behind periodization were to justify colonial setup and derogate Hindu and Muslim civilizations as backward and the Europeans to be far superior to the Eastern. The British period was proclaimed as a provoking agent of rationalism and individualism and those of Muslims and Hindus were declared as very much anti to the development of individualism and rational thought. The periodization on the basis of religion was to divide people with regard to their specific identities. Ironically enough, the current political scenarios in Asia are mostly governed with the proxy thought of division and schism inherited from Mill.
Next comes the role of Lord Thomas Macaulay and his representation of orients. There are bulk of arguments in contiguity with him with regard to his misrepresentation of the people of east and its cultures and histories, but his piece of “Minute upon Indian Education” is special and brings his actual intentions forth. The actual words are quoted below “I have conversed both here and at home with men distinguished by their proficiency in the Eastern tongues… I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. Honours might be roughly even in works of the imagination, such as poetry, but when we pass from works of imagination to works in which facts are recorded, and general principles investigated, the superiority of the Europeans becomes absolutely immeasurable”. The ambition and objectives are clear though it seems Macaulay purposed development of Indian education on the secular and modern lines. No doubt Muslims and Hindus were powerless and weak to defend their empires but could it justify Mill’s denouncing of eastern languages and literature all the way down. Let us take few examples to understand the inherent bias in the writings of Macaulay. During the medieval period, Islamic world supplied ideas and information to Europe via Al-Andlus and Sicily. Translations of Arabic texts in astronomy, mathematics, literature, science and medicine etc. were carried to the western world from people of Arab and many other oriental world. Notably, the method of algorism by the Persian Al-Khwarizmi in 9th century introduced in Europe by Leonardo Fibonacci and the use of optical science of Ibn Al-Haytham by newton and Descartes clearly suggests the minds were of writers like Macaulay were preoccupied with bias on religious and historical lines.
The orientalist historians did not only reprobate the historical facts but lead astray the people at large. Their way of enticing didn’t remain for shorter span of time but centuries and in turn gave birth to various other school of thoughts who wrote in defense. They tried to write the history objectively and unbiased.
Though Edward Said in his “Orientalism” wrote empirically and reasonably in defense of orientalist charges without discrediting their positive outcome of research about the eastern studies. But he remained in an agreement on the basic elements of oriental objectives which were to serve imperialism.
Complications and false interpretation of things in contemporary times are still with us and even chasing with the strong fervor from continents to continents and states to states. Let’s keep the whole debate open as what is to be accepted and what is to be rejected. But we must not forget the basic truths prior to conclusion and outcome.
It is worth to understand that the personal frustration, political hostility and historical hatred ruins the pure contents and important principle of objectivity which consequently result in mess making of the historical truths, constructive criticism and in the end breeds crisis in writing of good history.
Aaqib Maqbool Khan is a post-graduate in History from University of Kashmir and can be mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org
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