The many lives of India

In his new BBC Radio 4 series, 
Sunil Khilnani will tell the story 
of India through 50 of its most interesting historical characters. He talks to Rob Attar about a number of the figures who made it onto the list and tackles some of the big questions of India’s past

Lion Capital of the Pillars of Ashoka from Sarnath. (iStock / Getty Images Plus)

This article was first published in the May 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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You’ve said in the past that very few Indians from history are well known in the west. Why do you think that is?

I think it is partly because India has often been seen in terms of big collective groupings. We think of it as having religions, castes, languages and regional groups but we rarely think of the individuals that have made up India’s history. Then it is also partly because of the way Indian history has been told: it was initially the stories of dynasties such as the Mauryans or Mughals and, subsequently it has been social history and history from below which is also all about groups. I would say, as well, that in India there has been a very weak tradition of biography. It is very popular when it comes to British or American history, yet in India you often have celebratory hagiographies, but biography has never really developed.

Your new series tells the story of India. How is that defined and when did India  actually become India?

In the series I take a simple view. Until 1947 I use the term ‘India’ to refer to the Indian subcontinent, essentially from the north-west border with Afghanistan down to the eastern border with Burma. Then, from 1947, I take India the nation state – so without Pakistan and Bangladesh and so on. I’m not being too strict with that and, for instance, I will be including Mohammad Ali Jinnah who was the first leader of Pakistan, because for all but the last year of his life [he died in 1948] he was part of the history of India. In the series I also want to raise the second part of your question as to when India really becomes a civilisation and a culture that is conscious of itself.

I don’t want to prejudge this question but I hope the answer will gain some clarity through the programmes. How did you select the people for the series? It must have been difficult

It was incredibly difficult but in the end I managed to decide on 50, of whom some are very well known in India and some almost completely unknown. All of them were people who interested me and in the end this is my take on how to think about Indian history. I chose these 50 knowing that there would be some controversy over them but I didn’t select them perversely. I’m sure everyone will have their own list of 50 and that’s great because I want there to be an argument about this. This is my attempt to stimulate a debate.

The series opens with the Buddha. Is he the first person we can really speak about historically in India’s past?

I wanted all of my choices to be real historical figures and I think it is the case that the Buddha is the first individual in Indian history of whom we have actual evidence. We know he lived, we know roughly where he was born, we know where he first taught and where he died. For me he is the first historical figure who has the complexity of a human being and who steps out of the depths of history and speaks to us.

In one episode of the series, historian William Dalrymple says that the surviving Indian classical literature is far more extensive than that of the Romans and Greeks. Would you agree?

It is certainly true that there was an extraordinary wealth of writing and thinking in ancient India. It is also true that it is little known in the west. People may have heard of the epics like Mahabharata or the Ramayana, but beyond that there is a whole range of intellectual writings on medicine, philosophy, science and mathematics that we still have very little knowledge of. For example there is a vast body of Sanskrit manuscripts about science and mathematics of which only about 10 per cent have been published.

Prior to the age of European exploration, was there much contact between India and the civilisations of the west and Middle East?

This is one of the commonplaces about Indian history: that somehow it was hermetically sealed until it encountered the west in the 15th and 16th centuries. It’s an idea that I wanted to explode in my series because the fact is that right back to the time of the Buddha, India was in contact with a variety of different cultures. The Buddha lived in today’s Bihar [a state in north-east India], and northern India at that point had many connections with Persia and the Middle East. Then in the centuries after his death, the Greek world was also in contact with this area. There was regular trade with Europe, even in the south of India, and there were also many connections with south-east Asia and Africa. Really from its earliest history, India was a crossroads and not a sealed bubble waiting for Europe to discover it. Taking the Buddha again, within a couple of centuries of his death, his teachings had spread down to Ceylon (as it was then called) and to the far east and China. India was both absorbing things from other countries and sending its ideas and cultural and material products out into the rest of the world.

When the British first arrived in India at the start of the 17th century, would it be true to say that Britain was actually behind India in terms of its development?

I think it’s mixed but certainly when the British really started to develop a presence in the 18th century, India’s share of world trade was very significant. It’s also true that the British came to India, not because it was poor and undeveloped but because it had very sophisticated textiles and manufactured products as well as its abundant natural resources. The British were interested in what India had to make and sell and they also encountered a country that had quite sophisticated military technologies and architecture. In the early encounters between Britain and India, it was a meeting of two cultures that were equals. Later, the 18th‑century British scholar William Jones – a remarkable man whom you’ll meet in the series – came to India, discovering ancient works he judged to be as good as those of Homer and Shakespeare. Now of course this quickly tipped over, and within 50 years the British no longer thought of Indians as equals. But in the initial moment there was a sense that India had at least as much to offer, as Britain had to offer it.

What happened to India, then, that meant that it fell behind the west in these years?

A number of things happened in the second half of the 18th century that knocked India off course. One element was military confrontation with the west, when both Britain and France were struggling for control of the country. The British in particular managed to defeat some very important Indian kingdoms and princely states. Remember the British were operating not as a state but through a rogue company, the East India Company, which had very little controls over it and was able to grab large chunks of land and dispossess Indians.

It is in this period, from the 1780s to 1840s, when India ended up becoming a subordinate culture to the British. Now of course Indians themselves bear a lot of responsibility for the fact that they didn’t develop strategic responses to the British. They didn’t come together, and allowed themselves to be outflanked and outmanoeuvred. This is just a kernel of the story but it’s a complex situation and I think that actually as historians we still don’t have
a fully satisfying answer to this question.

Another major debate of this era is about the impact of British rule in India. Do you see it as more of a positive or negative influence on the country?

These long-term encounters between cultures are always mixed in their outcomes. There is no question that the colonisation by Britain did many negative things to India. It affected the economic opportunities of many Indians, divided them against each other, introduced a kind of racism into Indian life and led to
150 years of subjugation. On the other hand, the encounter with Britain opened India up to ideas.

Several people in my series from the 19th and 20th centuries, including activist Jyotirao Phule, politician BR Ambedkar and even Gandhi himself, learned English and were opened up to western ideas, adopting Enlightenment principles and using them against the British. They said: “You profess to believe in the equality of man and the rights of human beings and yet you are not following these principles.” The intellectual encounter was a very rich and complicated one for Indians and it opened up a new way of thinking about society: what it was to be free, what it was to be an individual, what justice was and so on. You see the legacy of this in the Indian constitution and the embrace of democracy now. I’m not saying that democracy was a gift from the British to India – the Indians had to fight for it – but the principles of democracy became more powerful because Indians were exposed to these ideas.

How much do the historical figures in your series shape the India of today?

Quite a lot actually. I thought that would be the case and then in the extensive travel I’ve done to make this series I found it to be even more true than I expected. Someone like the Buddha, for instance, is now an inspiration to India’s former untouchables [the lowest in the Hindu caste system], who are now known as Dalits. To them he was someone who wanted to do away with the caste system and promote what they see as a more egalitarian society. Or take someone like the third-century BC emperor Ashoka. Today he is everywhere in India – his symbol is on Indian currency, so he’s there in your hands. And then when India launched its first satellite into space they named it after the sixth-century AD mathematician Aryabhata. These figures that we might think are from the remote past do have afterlives and are used in popular memory for many different purposes.

How do modern Indians feel about history in general? Are they as passionate about it as we are in Britain?

It’s often been said, including by the British, that the Indians don’t care about their past. However, what you see is actually a pretty intense connection. That doesn’t mean that Indians are always looking for exact factual records or doing their best to preserve historic documents or buildings (although they should be) but it does mean that they are engaging with the past in a way that is still an argument for them. The Buddha is still a contested figure today. So too is the Mughal prince Dara Shikoh, who was defeated and executed by his brother Aurangzeb, leading people to question what might have happened if he had become emperor instead. Or, take Ram Mohan Roy, the 19th-century Bengali reformer who was involved in the abolition of sati [where some women would commit suicide on their husbands’ funeral pyres]. These are people who Indians are still engaged with and whom they still think about. In this way, Indians do have a sense of the past that is very strong.

If you could meet a person from your series, who would you chose, and why?

I would be very interested to meet the 18th-century painter Nainsukh, who is part of the miniature painting tradition and painted with wonderful precision but equal boldness. We have only come to know of him recently through the work of art historians and we still have very little information about him. I would just love to watch him work and to find out what he believed himself to be doing in these extraordinary paintings.

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Sunil Khilnani is Avantha professor and director of the King’s India Institute, King’s College London. His books include The Idea of India (Penguin, 2012)