Sunday, April 14, 2024

James Mill’s history is still a nation’s misery

Sethulakshmi V S & Husna Hasan

The root of the saying ‘ignorance is bliss’ dates back centuries. Thomas Gray uttered the golden words in his poem ‘Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College.’ The lines are popularly quoted to mean that, at times, it is better to be not informed and less inquisitive for achieving a constant state of contentment. A thorough reading of the poem, however, reveals something more worthwhile.

I remember, in school, the classification of Indian history into three broad periods – the Hindu, the Muslim, and the British were not met with complete approval even by the then primary school kids. It was only innocent curiosity that spurred a student in my class to ask, “But, where are the Christians?” Apparently, it hurt the sentiments of my friend, who also happened to be a Christian that his religion did not have a place in Indian history. 

Looking back, I realize our classmates grew up to experience our fair share of miseries in life. Although we had not expected religious fundamentalism or hyper-nationalism to accompany the set of miseries we would have to experience, a little awareness then, at that age in school, went a long way in dispelling some of the twisted notions by which we are told to approach Indian political scenario today.

In its class 8 History textbook, NCERT has devoted an entire page to explain why Mill’s classification of History is erroneous 

In the 1780s, a young Scottish boy was toiling in his study. Son of a shoemaker, his ambitious mother forbade him from performing any manual labour. She knew that education was the only way to climb up the social ladder. Though the boy lived up to his mother’s expectations with his academic achievements, the lack of aristocratic privileges meant that he had to struggle to find success until he left for London. In London, he tasted his most significant success and amassed a huge fortune, strangely, by writing the history of a country he had never visited in his life. Sitting comfortably in his study, James Mill was shaping the course of Indian history.

During Mill’s time, there were two major strands of colonial interpretation of Indian history: the Orientalist and the Utilitarian.1 The Orientalists believed that knowledge about the colonies’ practices and beliefs was necessary to establish control over it.2 To comprehend a culture that was profoundly different from the one nurtured by the Western ideas of enlightenment demanded great curiosity, sensitivity, and compassion.

The scholars also had to be wary of ‘cognitive dissonance’ or the tendency of human minds to recalibrate their reality to the existing beliefs in the face of new findings that challenge their worldview. The European scholars who began studying and translating Sanskrit books into English made no attempt to understand the Indian perspective. Furthermore, Indian historical texts seldom conformed to the European ideas of history. The fact that Indians might have perceived their history differently was not acknowledged.3 While the Orientalists disregarded the Indo-Persian contributions of the medieval era and gave primacy to only the Sanskritic culture, the Utilitarians made scathing criticism of Indian culture in its entirety.

James Mill belonged to the Utilitarian school. His periodization of history in the book History of British India is regarded as the root of religious nationalism in the country4. This periodization is now widely recognized as flawed. The period before the advent of Turks in India was, in reality, the period of Brahmanism, Sramanism, and many other cults associated with the Puranas5.

These religions lacked various characteristics of European religions like monotheism, sacred textbooks, and proper ecclesiastical organizations except for the Buddhist Sanghas. The British attempts to align Indian religions into a familiar European worldview resulted in the emergence of a new definition of Hinduism that disregarded the diversity of the indigenous religious beliefs and practices.6 Hence, by classifying a major part of Indian history as the ‘Hindu’ period, James Mill was preparing the ground for distorting a history rich in its plurality and multiplicity. Mill’s reference to the intervening period (between the ancient and the colonial period) as the ‘Muslim’ period also had far-reaching consequences. The medieval historical texts written in India do not refer to the cavalrymen who came to the subcontinent from Central Asia as Muslims. They were called Turukas (Turks), Mlecchas, or Yavanas.7 In addition, James Mill’s classification was also based on the religion of the prevailing ruling class. He overlooked the vigorous growth of the Puranic culture and the Bhakti movement, parallel to the rise of the Delhi Sultanate and the Mughal Empire in the North, and the Bahmani Sultans in the South. 

The implication of classifying the history of a country based on the religion of its rulers was evident even when the herculean task of demarcating its tenuous boundaries was given to Sir Cyril Radcliffe. In a hurry to leave India in as diplomatic a manner as possible, Attlee’s Britain hired a lawyer who had never visited the country before and knew nothing of its demographics.

Both the Indian Union Muslim League (comprised of Muslims) and the Indian National Congress (secular in outlook but comprised mostly of upper-class Hindus) did not object since they believed Radcliffe was an ‘impartial’ figure. Years of mutual antagonism and exclusivity under British rule had convinced the Muslims in the country that they would not feel safe in a Hindu-majority land.

If only we had realized a Hindu had as much say in relishing Kabir’s verses as a Muslim had in relishing Kalidasa’s poetry. If only we had realized a Hindu had everything to be proud of Akbar’s reign as much as a Muslim had everything to be proud of Ashoka’s reign. If only we were told Aryabhatta and Bhaskara are our pride and not the monopoly of any religion, then we would have not only preserved our glory, we could also have retained everything that was rightfully ours within the natural boundaries of the subcontinent, including Kashmir.

Since religious demographics were the most pressing concern that had to be addressed by Radcliffe, there was no ideal way of realizing a boundary that could solve the innumerable number of problems that followed partition. However, as Radcliffe later acknowledged, if he had “two or three years” more, he would have improved on what he drew. If he had more time, he stated later, he would not have relied on out-of-date maps, and dated census reports. Thus, by 1971, a lawyer turned cartographer’s haphazardly drawn boundaries resulting in the creation of not two but three countries.

It is necessary we recognize why defining Indian historical periods on the basis of any particular religion is problematic. It is necessary we realize James Mill’s classification was nothing but an assertion of the divide et impera (divide and rule) tactic profusely employed by the British in its colonies. Religious nationalism today is raving up stealthily and has started gnawing even the heart of the country. In the current scenario, it is better the children of today are taught how a distortive history still contributes to partisan politics in the country. They should be taught better to rise above ‘blissful ignorance,’ guard themselves against communalism and staunchly defend the secularism and pluralism of this nation.

Husna Hasan is a lecturer at Azharul Uloom College, Aluva, Kerala and Sethulakshmi VS is a social work student at Sri Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit, Kerala.


1.  Thapar, Romila. The Penguin History Of Early India. Penguin Books, 2003, p. 2.

2.  Ibid., 3.

3.  Ibid., 2.

4.  Ibid., 5.

5.  Thapar, Romila. “Imagined Religious Communities? Ancient History and the Modern Search for a Hindu Identity.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 23, no. 2, 1989, p. 214. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/312738. Accessed 7 Mar. 2021.

6.  Ibid., 218.

7.  Ibid., 223.

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