Migrants in the Creation of Cultures

  - Studies in People’s History

Professor Satish Chandra established his credentials as a historian of medieval India with a striking book, Parties and Politics at the Mughal Court 1707–1740. In this, he highlighted the crisis in the jagirdari system during the decline of the Mughal empire. New questions were introduced, and the answers provided far more convincing explanations than the previous single attribution of the decline to Aurangzeb’s religious policy. A major impact was made with his widely read book on Medieval India. The two themes that he greatly encouraged, subsequently, were the need to use local archives so as to give an impetus to writing history from local sources, which often provide a rather different perspective from that of court chronicles, and the second was his interest in Indian Ocean Studies and maritime history.

Since my specialisation is in the earlier period, I shall be touching only partially on medieval times and on his interest in the Indian Ocean. But, hopefully, what I have to say may resonate with the later times.

I have chosen to speak on the subject of migrants and the making of cultures in India. The choice of subject is in the nature of a plea that historians of India should give more attention to the importance of migrations in the creation of Indian cultures at various historical periods. Many histories tend to treat the role of migration as marginal. Migrations are mentioned and left at that with little being said about their impact on the host society or on the cultural forms that may have evolved from their presence. This needs correction. If we recognise this role, we will have a better understanding of the cultures that resulted from the interface and give credit to the process.

I shall speak of three examples that demonstrate this process. I shall first refer to the migration of the Aryan speakers in the second millennium bc. Then, I will move forward a millennium or so to the period of the Kuṣāṇas in the early centuries ad. My third example will be from the second millennium ad with the Arab traders from across the Arabian Sea. One of the advantages of dealing with such a long history is that one can happily move across millennia.

Let me explain why I chose these three migrations. They are from three different periods and are distinct in terms of who migrated and why. The cultures they helped to create took recognisably different forms. We do not often recognise how much of our past we owe to migrant groups. Today, we may call them foreigners, but, in earlier times, they were integrated with, and contributed to, the host culture and its heritage in India. My examples are from neighbouring areas outside the subcontinent, but they are actually close enough.

Before I discuss migration, let me clarify a confusion that is commonly made. Migration should not be mistaken for invasion. The two must be differentiated and the difference made clear. Among the features of an invasion are that every invasion can be dated to a specific point in time. It involves a large body of trained and armed soldiers who use the maximum violence to conquer and loot the region they attack. If they are victorious and decide to settle in the area, they take over its governance and appropriate its revenue. The cultural distinction between the local and the foreign is determined by the nature of the invasion and governance. It can merge into a continuation from the past with a minimal change, or it can be strikingly different.