November 08, 2006

History Writing and New Technologies: A Comment

Screenshot of Wikipedia main page taken from CHNM referred article
The credibility of Wikipedia as a source of information and knowledge has been debated again and again for the last five years. On H-Net email listing this issue comes again and again. The editors of the different lists had allowed this debate to continue on their list whenever it is revived.

Being on the list of H-Asia, I have collected the emails concerning the Wikipedia and related issues in a separate folder. I have lost many of the emails but even then, there is a good count available in the folder. From time to time, I pick up some emails and try to check the contents and references given in them. It has also directed my attention to such posts on different web sites and blogs which are about the Wikipedia and controversies related its contents. After a long time, I have taken up an article by Roy Roxenzweig titled is Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past in June 2006. It is a long essay. It has been written as an article as it is presented in seminars and conferences. It has taken up a large number of conceivable issues which has cropped up with the success and related controversies of Wikipedia. During the process of pondering over the issues in there, he has taken up the issue of methodology in history when a new technology is absorbed in the methodology of research and writing of history. The essay is quite long but in the body of the essay, the author has been able to address the issue of writing of history which makes one to think about the future direction of the researching and writing of history.

Two issues have attracted my attention. One is the issue of present work on the history of America and second is the issue of "Popular History Writing" and Indian history. The comments on them follow.

It has discussed the issue of Spanish War and Philippines war and their relative place in the general text books. In the history books, the Spanish war is given more place and described extensively. However, on the Wikipedia as per this article, it is Philippines war which is described more extensively and the Spanish War has found lesser number of words to describe it. It is true, if you read a general text book on American History, the issue is generally discussed under the Spanish War. The authors tend to shift to the issue of rise of America as an imperial power. They do not describe the Philippines war more extensively. The theme which they adopt after that is mostly the American policy towards the economic imperialism. That leaves the analysis of Philippines war incomplete. Here, the reverse has taken place in Wikipedia.

Well, here, the issue is not that what aspect of American history finds lesser attention by the professional historians. The issue is that how community work can emphasis a gap in the overall perception about a period in case of professional historians on one hand and rest of the community on the other.

The second comment is about "Popular History Writing". I hope, I have understood it with the same meaning with which has been done in the essay. I propose to make following observations.

The article has also taken up the issue of the "popular History writing" which is now a big issue in India. As I understand, the term "popular History writing" suggests that the historians should write as per the demand of the audience. In India, there is great pressure on historians to rewrite the history of India. The most controversial issue is the chapterization from the earlier times. Under this issue, there is demand from a section of a society that the first chapter of Indian history should be Sarasvati Civilization than the Indus Valley Civilization. Similarly, in Punjab, there is always a pressure from the Sikh community to adopt a particular theme while writing the History of Punjab. The professional historians find their work hindered by such interference. They pass through a rigor of collecting and sifting before they put anything in writing. The interpretation comes at a very later stage. Their interpretation is defined by the contents of the sources which are taken as the facts. However, if a conflict emerges between their interpretation and the popular consciousness on a fact, then it is historians who are made to bend. They do not feel happy in such a situation. They feel highly constrained in doing justice to their field of knowledge. In the article mentioned, the author has taken this issue in light of the form in which Wikipedia has developed over last five years. He has argued and presented his views which deserves some consideration by the rest of the historian community. He has presented his view in reference to the issue of absorbing technology in the field of methodology of research in history.

On the whole, it will be good that if a debate starts on the issues taken by Roy with regard to the methodology of research and writing history.

Source: Resources on CHNM


  1. Sumir,
    Your blog is quite interesting and a good effort. You might enjoy The Last Mughal, by William Dalrymple.

  2. Dear Sambar42,

    Thanks for the appreciation.

    I have placed the following comment on your review at

    The comment follows:

    You say,
    “So, when Zafar joined the Sepoys, it was the british that were mutinying against their masters, not the indians. I think it's really ironic that the british should consistently refer to the events as the Mutiny of 1857 :-)”

    Well, Well. However, I will suggest that the domination of the East India company should be studied from Allahabad Treaty of 1765 onwards. Under Subsidiary Alliances, it was the elite group of the Indian society, which had surrendered India to them. Hence, by virtue of being the winners, the East India Company was ruling over India. Another best example is annexation of Sindh and Punjab. I hope you know that what the British officer said while annexing Sindh. He claimed that it was the finnest piece of rascality but they had done it. On the other hand, annexation of Punjab can never be justified. But only argument which can be used is that it was the prize won by the winner in Anglo Sikh war. Only comment that can be made is that there is touch nationalistic urges in your statement. Somewhere, it is your country and your region (the region of Cholas, Pandya and Cheras) which are alive. You may be away from home but your heart is here. You will be surprised to know that it is a recent trend that the rule of Cheras and Cholas are being reinterpreted on a model which had been build around the history of some tribes in South part of Africa. The success of Cholas and the imperialistic activities are being under rated under that new interpretation.

    On the whole, it can also be said, that it was the force behind the nationalistic movement which tried to push out the British out of India. It was the basis on which the Puran Swaraj demand was placed instead of a Dominion Status. Dominion Status was good for Canada and Australia because they belonged to Anglo-Saxon group. But Indians were never from that lot. But, I am unable to understand in spite of the teacher and student of history, that how this middle class theory had been build to gain the independence. My reading of history is taking me to a different direction. Middle Class and rise of Nationalism with Middle Class theories never appeal to me. The problem is that we have always picked western model as frame of reference to evaluate the Indian history. Similarly, the Marxist interpretation and the Grimansci model to interpret on the basis of fight for hegemony between the classes have also not cut ice with me.

    You say,
    “The history of the 1857 rebellion is taught very superficially in school.”

    You are quite right. I would like to direct your attention to some of posts in my sumir-history blog. Actually there is a need of rewriting the Indian history. Kindly check the following posts wherein I have dilated on this issue in different contexts:

    “Apparently, Delhi was undergoing a cultural renaissance under him. He also seems to have been made in the mold of Dara Shikoh rather than Aurangzeb. He was a lover of the arts, a sufi, a pretty good poet himself and treated hindus and muslims equally.”

    You have reached an established conclusion. I would like to direct your attention to a book of Muzaffar Alam “The Crisis of Empire in Mughal North India (Awadh and the Punjab 1707-1748) and second book by Ishrat Haq titled “Glimpses of Mughal Culture”. Ishrat Haq had treaded a new path wherein she had tried to study of the cultural changes as taking place through the poetry of the period by five major poets of the 18th century. She had also traced the similar changes in 19th century. You may enjoy reading the British Paramountancy by R. C. Majumdar. He has been able to bring out some more effective conclusions. It is really ironical that he was not given much recognition after the D. D. Kosambi and than later Marxist lot dominated this field.

    You have read,
    “The siege of Delhi, as it were, was actually carried out by gujjar tribesmen who looted anyone that entered or left the city, effectively choking the city out.”

    Well R. C. Majumdar had never identified them with any particular group. Secondly, if you know, that such conclusions about Mewatis (Jats) had angered the particular community in India recently. No doubt, it was a strong contention of R. C. Majumdar that the event of 1857 should never be called the first war of independence. He had traced a regular theme in the Sepoy Mutiny of 1764, then inVellore Mutiny in 1806, then in Barrackpore Mutiny in 1824 and finally the 1844 mutiny and Afghan Mutiny during Anglo Afghan War. Basic thing is reinterpretation is required. A set of concepts has to be framed which describe the events in Indian continent on the basis of the facts as they were there. The problem is that we have never been able to shed the edifice which J Mills constructed on the Indian history. Now, when as a nation, we are finding our place in the community of nations, we find that we already have that vital force which makes us a nation. Go to America and live among them. You sense and feel that it something American spirit which are their strength. It is not racialism. That is only one shade. But there is totally a different existence and that is American Spirit. Here I would like to direct you attention to the following post.

    You have read,
    “The sepoys violently changed the prevailing order in Delhi by riding in from Meerut and killing every single christian they could find.”

    Well, I have not the read the book. It is now in the market. When I will visit my regular book store, I hope that I would get a copy of it there. I have read in the interview of Darlymple as given to BBC that he had located sources from it was learnt that the Indian converts to Christianity were the main target. Well, It is definitely a new finding as far as my knowledge goes. In case of Tribal revolts, we have been studying that when such revolt took place then the immediate oppressors, whether they were money lenders, or Gora Babu or Gumastas of British company, they became their target of their anger. I think that there had never been anti-Christian riots as such. It is something which has been observed in recent times only. But anyhow, I think I should first look into the book. I believe that your present review is immediate reaction after reading the book. I will like to suggest you that History is an Art, a Science and literature; all three combined to make the writing of history. The literature aspect of history writing is a feature which play wonders as well mischief if an artist of words wields the pen. But I am not convinced that this anti-Christian feature was there in 1857. Now do not bring in the social reformers in it. I think the criticism of Keshav Chander Sen is wrong. Similarly the aversion to the activities of Pandita Ramabai is also not justified. All these features had to been to re examined. The Christians activists were here since the days of Portuguese. Even there is a theory that it is here since the days of Saint Peters. But, this feature of killing Christian agenda is something which requires some established proofs. One or two reference and then to declare it a history will turn out to be a Bad history.

    You say’
    “When we say 'The British', we of course, mean The British East India Company, which was one of the earliest MNCs. Imagine, if you will, Pepsico, or Microsoft, running a country with the only motive being their bottomline. That's essentially what the BEC was doing to India (and Sri Lanka and Burma) with the marked lack of empathy that is the defining characteristic of a Corporation(then, as now).”

    How sweet. I can not really tell you how I enjoyed this comment. I have to really spend ten to fifteen minutes to explain to my undergraduate students. But, there is other side also. Firstly, the joint stock companies, as they were known at that time, never knew their status as such as it is defined now. Secondly, this anomaly was soon identified by the Britishers back at home. That was the reason that they brought Regulating Act of 1773 which was followed by Pitts India Act. They soon learnt the secret of the Naboobs like Clive and Vanistart. However, there were numerous other wheels which were moving within the movement. There was a feature of such companies under which the employee could also carry out his personal business along with that of the company. No doubt, the employment in BEC was most sought after jobs. It was only the young brats of 16 or 18 years from the elite class of London who came to East Indies.

    You have read,
    “Apparently the extent to which the first-generation british had integrated themselves into indian society is not stressed by the indians or the british”

    Well I am also surprised. We have been reading the quotation of Thomas Roe which totally contradicts it. No doubt, there were people like William Jones, Charles Wilkins, H. H. Willson, John Princep, the people at short lived Wellesley School or as they are know are the Orientalists. They were attracted to Indian literature. They were impressed and influenced by it. Macaulay had just given sweeping statements. Even there are doubts about the contexts in which he had written those lines. But, absorption in social and cultural tradition – it is something which I would also like to study. Well there is a book by Thompson titled “Other Side of the Medal”, in which he had written some thing similar to it. However, that was about the sympathy and some extent an affinity of some British people with Indian way of life. Well in present day India, there is Ruskin Bond and Tom Alter who will be happy reading such theories. However, English gone native seems to be a new theory.

    You have read,
    “At this point, the East India Company had made the move of invading and occupying Avadh, a rich indian state that was also home to many of its sepoys. Avadh was a friendly state to the British. This sent out a loud message to other states in India that your disposition towards the british didn't matter to them, they would take you over anyway.”

    Well this is an established theory. However, I will like to draw your attention to my one of my another post. I hope you can read Hindi. It is given below.

    You have read,
    “In others, like Delhi, it was certainly a religious war.”

    Well, it is a sweeping statement. Was there “Manifest Destiny theory” more in operation than other urges. I will suggest that you must read the following post by Prof. R. K. Khanna.

    You have commented that
    “The british response took on an extremely religious overtone.”

    It is a new theory. It requires further examination.

    Anyhow, finally, you have done a great job. The book in question has been released in India also. I will definitely read it at the earliest. However, the interview of the author to BBC had definitely biased the judgement. Secondly, it is again the same old story that a foreigner comes to India, finds some untouched paper, picks them and write a book out of them and then we Indians start reacting to it. We in India, do not have it in us to do it first. We wait others to come and make us to react against him. Then the contents of our reaction are then projected as our statement. If any of us try to take initiative, first comes the discouragement and the second problem is always the funding which can be obtained only if you have the right networking.



    The grip of the Majlis-e-ittehadul Muslimeen on the community remains strong, With a Member representing Hyderabad in the Lok Sabha, five members in the Andhra Pradesh Assembly, 40 corporators in Hyderabad and 95-plus members elected to various municipal bodies in Andhra Pradesh, the All-India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen is one of the foremost representatives of the city’s Muslims and the most powerful Muslim party in India and one can see the partys strenghth if it goes to Hyderabad old city and Parts of Muslim Dominated Villages of Andhra Pradesh everywhere u look u can see MIM written on walls ,lightpoles and buildings leaving aside green flags and posters of its Leadership and there small Offices . The Majlis has brought lot of development to the Old part of the city even after it is said it hasnt done anything by its opponents who are mostly Ex Majlis workers.The Majlis was formed in 1927 “for educational and social uplift of Muslims”. But it articulated the position that “the ruler and throne (Nizam) are symbols of the political and cultural rights of the Muslim community… (and) this status must continue forever”.The Majlis pitted itself against the Andhra Mahasabha and the communists who questioned the feudal order that sustained the Nizam’s rule. It also bitterly opposed the Arya Samaj, which gave social and cultural expression to the aspirations of the urban Hindu population in the Hyderabad State of those days.By the mid-1940s, the Majlis had come to represent a remarkably aggressive and violent face of Muslim communal politics as it organised the razakars (volunteers) to defend the “independence” of this “Muslim” State from merger with the Indian Union.According to historians, over 1,50,000 such `volunteers’ were organised by the Majlis for the Nizam State’s defence but they are remembered for unleashing unparalleled violence against Communal Hindus and the communists and all those who opposed the Nizam’s “go it alone” policy. It is estimated that during the height of the razakar `agitation’, over 30,000 people had taken shelter in the Secunderabad cantonment alone to protect themselves from these `volunteers’.But the razakars could do little against the Indian Army and even put up a fight. Kasim Rizvi, the Majlis leader, was imprisoned and the organisation banned in 1948. Rizvi was released in 1957 on the undertaking that he would leave for Pakistan in 48 hours. Before he left though, Rizvi met some of the erstwhile activists of the Majlis and passed on the presidentship to Abdul Wahed Owaisi, a famous lawyer and an Islamic scholar from jamia nizamia who also was jailed for nearly 10 months after he took over the Majlis leadership as the then govt wanted to abolish the Majlis party but Owaisi refused to do so and was seen as a person who had financially supported the party when it was a bankrupt and weak one after the Police Action in Hyderabad State.Owaisi is credited with having “re-written” the Majlis constitution according to the provisions of the Indian Constitution and “the realities of Muslim minority in independent India”, and fought the legal case for winning back darrusslam mim headquarters for years according to a former journalist, Chander Srivastava. For the first decade-and-a-half after this “reinvention”, the Majlis remained, at best, a marginal player in Hyderabad politics and even though every election saw a rise in its vote share, it could not win more than one Assembly seat.The 1970s saw an upswing in Majlis’ political fortunes. In 1969, it won back its party headquarters, Dar-us-Salaam — a sprawling 4.5-acre compound in the heart of the New City. It also won compensation which was used to set up an ITI on the premises and a women’s degree college in Nizamabad town. In 1976, Salahuddin Owaisi took over the presidentship of the Majlis after his father’s demise who also was also Jailed Various times .This started an important phase in the history of the Majlis as it continued expanding its educational institutions,Hospitals,Banks, including the first Muslim minority Engineering College and Medical College. Courses in MBA, MCA ,Nursing, Pharmacy and other professional degrees followed and now a daily newspaper known as Etemaad Daily. The 1970s were also a watershed in Majlis’ history as after a long period of 31 years, Hyderabad witnessed large-scale communal rioting in 1979. The Majlis came to the forefront in “defending” Muslim life and property Majlis workers could be seen at these moments defending the properties of Muslims in the wake of riots and these workers were very hard even for the police to control them even now it is a known fact that there are nearly about 2500 units of strong members who only act if there is a seirous threat to the Owaisi family and these members are under the direct orders of the Owaisi family which leads the Majlis party leaving aside thousands of workers and informers throughout the State and even outside the country far away till America and the Gulf countries.Salahuddin Owaisi, also known as “Salar-e-Millat” (commander of the community), has repeatedly alleged in his speeches that the Indian state has “abandoned” the Muslims to their fate. Therefore, “Muslims should stand on their own feet, rather than look to the State for help'’, he argues.This policy has been an unambiguous success in leveraging the Majlis today to its position of being practically the “sole spokesman” of the Muslims in Hyderabad and its environs.Voting figures show this clearly. From 58,000 votes in the 1962 Lok Sabha elections for the Hyderabad seat, Majlis votes rose to 1,12,000 in 1980. The clear articulation of this “stand on one’s feet” policy in education and `protection’ during riots doubled its vote-share by 1984. Salahuddin Owaisi won the seat for the first time, polling 2.22 lakh votes. This vote-share doubled in the 1989 Lok Sabha elections to over four lakhs.The Majlis has since continued its hold on the Hyderabad seat winning about five-and-a-half lakh votes each time.Despite remarkable economic prosperity and negligible communal violence in the past decade, the hold of the Majlis on the Muslims of Hyderabad remains, despite minor dents. And despite widespread allegations of Majlis leaders having “made money”, most ordinary Muslims continue to support them because, as one bank executive put it “they represent our issues clearly and unambiguously'’. An old Historian Bakhtiyar khan says the Owaisi family was a rich family even before entering Politics and he says he had seen the late Majlis leader Abdul Wahed Owaisi in an American Buick car at a time when rarely cars were seen on Hyderabad Roads and the family had strong relations with the ersthwhile Nizams of Hyderabad and the Paighs even now the family is considered to be one of the richest familes in Hyderabad.A university teacher says that the Majlis helped Muslims live with dignity and security at a time when they were under attack and even took the fear out of them after the Police action and adds that he has seen Majlis leaders in the front at times confronting with the Police and the Govt. Asaduddin Owaisi, the articulate UK educated barrister from Lincolns Inn College son of Salahuddin Owaisi and Former leader of the Majlis’ Legislature party and now an MP himself who has travelled across the globe meeting world leaders and organizatons and even in war zones compares the Majlis to the Black Power movement of America.The Majlis that emerged after 1957 is a completely different entity from its pre-independence edition, he says adding that comparisons with that bloody past are “misleading and mischievous”. “That Majlis was fighting for state power, while we have no such ambitions or illusions”.He stoutly defends the need for “an independent political voice” for the minorities, which is willing to defend them and project their issues “firmly”.“How can an independent articulation of minority interests and aspirations be termed communal,” he asks and contests any definition of democracy which questions the loyalty of minorities if they assert their independent political identity. “We are a threat not only to the BJP and Hindu communalism, but also to Muslim extremism,” Asaduddin claims. “By providing a legitimate political vent for Muslims to voice their aspirations and fears, we are preventing the rise of political extremism and religious obscurantism when the community is under unprecedented attack from Hindu communalists and the state'’. He can be seen in his speeches speaking against terrorism in the Country and says if the time arises Majlis will stand side by side in defending the Nation and Recently Majlis ittehadul Muslimeen MP Asaduddin Owaisi has Visited Lebanon after the war with israel and met the leaders of the resistance group Hezbollah and he has even visited Bombay and Malegaon Muslims and raised there issues in Parliament and has even represented the police torture victims to the Prime Minister and has given aid From Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen Party Fund.


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