Posted in History

People in history

 

My interest in history began with a fascination with the ancient world, particularly of Egypt and India, and with myths, legends and religious texts. One went on to focus on socio-economic history, and to look at the factors that shaped religion and other aspects of the past, and my next specialisation was the fascinating subject of historical geography.

Yet somewhere along the way my focus turned to people, the people who adorned the pages of history,  and the millions who didn’t. There were just so many, who did their best, who contributed so much, who lived and died, and who today are rarely remembered. Many founded new religions, others started reformist movements. There were kings and leaders, both good and bad, and with time they all faded into the past. There were even children, who formed part of historical movements, and who, as we see today, are recruited into wars, and suffer as a byproduct of conflicts they hardly understand.

When I came across the sentence quoted below, it seemed to make sense to me, to give the lives of those forgotten souls, some value and dignity.

‘This galaxy of human genius that enriches and beautifies the pages of history is at the same time the glory and the hope of all mankind, for we know that these greater ones are the forerunners of the rest.’ C. W. Leadbeater, from The Masters and the Path.

 

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Posted in History, India, Jawaharlal Nehru

Jawaharlal Nehru: as a writer

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Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, died on 27 May 1964. Memories on his death anniversary.

(First published 2003)
“ Last month I went back to Kashmir after an absence of twenty-three years. I was only there for twelve days, but those days were filled with beauty, and I drank in the loveliness of that land of enchantment. I wandered about the Valley and climbed a glacier, and felt that life was worthwhile.”
These words were written by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1940, in the midst of political struggles and prison sentences. Today we tend to forget that Nehru was not merely a leader of the fredom movement and India’s first prime minister, but also an accomplished writer. His books include Glimpses of World History, Discovery of India, and An Autobiography, as well as collections of essays, and of thousands of his letters and speeches.
During the course of the freedom struggle, Nehru was imprisoned by the British authorities for a total of more than nine years. In this enforced isolation from political activity, he found time to think, reflect, and write.
Glimpses of World History offers a panoramic sweep of the history of the world, and was written mainly between 1930 and 1933, in the form of letters to his young daughter, Indira. He writes about the Greeks, about Asia and Europe, Africa and America, about Mohenjodaro which has just been discovered, and intersperses his account with advice to Indira, and comments on life in jail.
Discovery of India was written in Ahmadnagar Fort, where he was imprisoned from 9 August 1942, the start of the Quit India Movement, to 28 March 1945. Though he begins with ancient India, the best sections are of the India in which he lives, the India that is struggling for independence. His style is graphic, fluent and compelling. Thus on the Bengal famine of 1943, he writes “ Famine came, ghastly, staggering, horrible beyond words. In Malabar, in Bijapur, in Orissa and, above all in the rich and fertile province of Bengal, men and women and little children died in thousands daily, for lack of food.” Adding his personal comments, as he usually does in most of his writing, he says, “Death was common enough everywhere. But here death had no purpose, no logic, no necessity; it was the result of man’s incompetence and callousness, man-made, a slow creeping thing of horror, with nothing to redeem it”.
He writes also about the personalities which shaped India, and tries to understand the growth of communalism, the strange idea of partition. Jinnah puzzles him. He was head and shoulders above other members of the Muslim League, he says and that is how he became their leader. Once Jinnah was considered the apostle of Hindu-Muslim unity, but now, “ Some destiny or course of events had thrown him among the very people for whom he had no respect.” This book thus looks at history from within, through the eyes of a man who participated in and created history, and should be compulsory reading for anyone wishing to understand the tumultous years befor independence.
His Autobiography, the most introspective of his books, was written mainly in Dehra Dun jail between 1934 and 1935. Here he writes not only of his life and the ongoing political struggle, but of his jail companions – hordes of wasps, bats, a puppy he nursed through a serious illness, a kitten he made friends with; he describes the weather, the incessant rain, and the glorious view on a freezing cold day, of the mountains, covered with snow.
All these books were written before independence. After 1947, he continued to write thousands of letters. His Speeches have been collected in five volumes, and reflect India’s growth and problems in the early years of independence.
Nehru’s historical perspective, wide knowledge, philosophical approach and subtle wit, make whatever he has written worth reading even today.

Posted in book review., Books, Hiroshima, History

Learning from history: Hiroshima and memories of the bomb

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What is the point of knowing about the past? This was a question often put to me as a teacher. Why do we need to know about it at all? Considering how different versions of the past are put forward and misused to prove some  point or the other, one can sympathise with the is question. Still, one hopes that by knowing about the past at least some of its terrible tragedies would not be repeated. And among the greatest tragedies was that created by the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On 6 August 1945, the first ever nuclear bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in Japan by  an American plane at 8.15 am. Eighty thousand people were killed that day, and many more thousand died over the years of sickness caused by radiation. Three days later, on 9 August, another bomb was dropped at Nagasaki, killing between 60,000-80,000 people. Most of the deaths were of civilians. The bombing brought an end to World War II, with the surrender of Japan, but the USA continues to be criticised for this till today.

There are historical, as well as survivors accounts of this horrific event. Yet one of the best accounts, clearly depicting in detail the aftermath of the bomb, can be read in a book by a Japanese novelist, which focuses on Hiroshima.

Black Rain (Kuroi Ame), by Masuji Ibuse, though classified as fiction, reads like a memoir. It is an account of that day and subsequent events, and at the same time brings us vignettes of Japanese life. These are not based on Ibuse’s own experiences, but as he was born in Hiroshima prefecture,  obviously  what happened there affected him deeply, and he later wrote the book using the accounts of survivors. His story Kakitsubata (Crazy Iris) was published earlier, also with the theme of the atomic bomb, about an iris that changes after radiation.

Black Rain was first published in Japanese in 1966.  Paul Brians, who has written on the atomic war in fiction, calls it, ‘the most devastating account of the effects of nuclear war ever written.’ The book opens with Shigematsu Shizuma, of the village of Kobatake, more than a 100 miles east of Hiroshima, wondering how to get his niece  Yasuko married. It  was difficult as there were rumours that she was the victim of radiation sickness. At the  time the bomb was dropped, the Shizumas, Shigematsu and his wife Shigeko, were living in Hiroshima, and Yasuko lived with them, as she was working in a factory at nearby Furuichi. She and Shigematsu took the same train to work every day. The book begins  four years later .

Shigematsu was suffering from radiation sickness. He could still manage his daily life, he explains, as those who had a mild sickness could stay alive by eating nutritious food and not doing anything strenuous. Unable to work, Shigematsu and his two friends in a similar situation decided to try fish farming, and to rear carp. How was he to get Yasuko married? He thought that her would-be suitor could be convinced that she was healthy, if he was provided with her diary, which showed she was not affected by the bomb, and was not even in Hiroshima on that day. But Yasuko also records, that even if only for a minute, black rain had fallen on her.

About that day Yasuko wrote: ‘At Furue there was a great flash and boom. Black smoke rose up over the city of Hiroshima  like a volcanic eruption.’

‘It must have been about 10 am. Thundery black clouds had borne down on us from the direction of the city, and the rain from them had fallen in streaks, the thickness of a fountain pen. It had stopped almost immediately. It was cold, cold enough to make one shiver although it was midsummer.’  Yasuko found her skin and clothes had marks like splashes of mud all over. They were impossible to wash off. She adds in her diary, ‘As a dye, I thought, it would be an unqualified success.’

Shigematsu decided to copy his diary out too, to preserve for posterity. He wrote: 6 August. ‘On my way to work, I entered Yokogawa station as usual to board the Kabe train’.  Kabe was just 14 km away.

‘At a point three metres to the left of the waiting train, I saw a ball of blindingly intense light, and simultaneously I was plunged into total unseeing darkness’. Then he describes the resulting confusion, as the black veil was pierced by screams and cries, and Shigematsu was pushed out as people struggled to escape, and bodies piled up. Shigematsu clung to a pillar, using all his strength. When he finally opened his eyes, ‘Everything within my field of vision seemed to be obscured with a light brown haze, and a white, chalky powder, was falling from the sky.’ He describes the sights, the wounded and the dead, he himself being slightly injured, the skin peeling off his left cheek. The Yukogawa shrine and all else around was destroyed. Then he describes the mushroom cloud. ‘The head of the mushroom would billow  out, first to the east, then to the west, then out to the east again; each time, some part or other of its body would emit a fierce light, in ever-changing shades of red, purple, lapis lazuli or green. And all the time it went on boiling out unceasingly from within….The cloud loomed over the city as if waiting to pounce…’.

He continues to copy out his diary, recording  the terrible sights and endless deaths, in between describing their quiet life in later years in the Japanese countryside. One farmers’ festival follows another, including one where prayers are said for dead insects, those that are killed while ploughing the land. And this peaceful Japanese life is contrasted with details of the terrible destruction, the dead bodies everywhere, teaming with maggots and flies, the weeds that somehow seemed to grow when everything else was a barren waste, the endless mass cremations that had to take place.

It seemed that Yasuko’s suitor was convinced that she was fine, and marriage became more likely. But though Yasuko remained apparently healthy for many years, the black rain or some other contamination had seeped into her, causing her to finally get radiation sickness, and details of this terrible illness too are provided. They could only hope for a miracle, but it seemed unlikely, she was just one more casualty of the all-round destruction.

Black Rain was made into a film by Shohei Imamura in 1989.

Masuji Ibuse (1898-1993), a well-known Japanese writer, had written several books and won a number of awards, yet as far as possible he tried to remain away from the limelight.

Memoirs of the effects of the bomb include the recently published, Hiroshima: Memoirs of a Survivor by Sachi Komura Rummel, who was a young 8-year old girl at the time. Tamiki Hara (1905-1951) wrote down his experiences in a notebook, but committed suicide in 1951. His nephew Tokihiko Hara gained the copyright to his notebook and included it in his book, Natsu no Hana (Summer Flowers) also to be made into a movie. Sankuchi Toge (1917-1953) wrote poems on the terrible event. He died at the age of 36. There are also several eyewitness accounts which can be accessed online (for  instance www.hiroshima-remembered.com), as well as a number of books, both historical and personal accounts.

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Posted in History, Religion

Rewriting history

I wrote this article after listening to a rather bizarre discussion on TV, published in today’s Garhwal Post–the word file is below.

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Rewriting history

A 14- member committee has been appointed by the Ministry of Culture in India, to rewrite India’s history. Historians constantly do revise their opinions on the past, based on recent research, but to start with certain aims and assumptions, before even looking at the evidence, would lead to the project lacking authenticity.

This group  seems to have definite aims and to be looking at specific aspects of the past–firstly that there was no large migration of a branch of Indo-Europeans into India around 4000 -2000 BCE. For this, they do not require a new committee, as the theory has already been challenged by several historians, while it continues to be supported by others. In my book on the Vedas, I attempted to look at all the evidence again with a fresh mind, along with the different viewpoints of hundreds of scholars. After this exercise, it seemed to me that no definite conclusion could be reached one way or the other–on both sides there was an attempt to reach conclusions through scanty evidence, often examined out of context.

Next, the committee wants to prove that the ancient river Sarasvati existed–but the probable course of this river has already been identified by archaeologists and geologists.

In addition, they want to trace Hindu culture back to the earliest days–this is certainly impossible, without inventing evidence. India was occupied in the Stone Age, but archaeological evidence cannot point to  any clearly identifiable religion, which could be equated with Hinduism as it is known today.

On a TV programme yesterday, a participant insisted that Shah Jahan did not build the Taj Mahal, nor the Red Fort, nor the Jama Masjid. All these were constructed by Hindus. He added that he based his ideas on those of Stephen Knapp, someone of whom I had not heard. The wonderful internet though, provides information on him. According to his theories, every civilisation in the world was founded by Hindus. What was Rome, if not a version of the name Rama? And Romulus and Remus, can be identified with Lava and Kusha. The Romans’ togas were only modified dhotis…and so much more. Arabia was ruled by Hindus, the Kaaba is a Shiva lingam, and practically every name in the world is derived from a Hindu etymology!

Rewriting history has taken place across nations and countries in all parts of the world, along with different types of histories that challenge those of the mainstream. Yet even so, this kind of imaginative reconstruction is relatively unique. It of course does not originate with Stephen Knapp–there was P N Oak, in the past, among several others.  Konraad Elst, an a blog post [23 June 2010] says about Oak, ‘I expected his star to wane and get eclipsed by more sensible voices of Hindu historical revisionism, but the opposite has happened.’ He calls his views ‘fanciful and totally unfounded.’ He goes on to say, ‘The popularity of P N Oak’s theses is a sign of gross immaturity among contemporary Hindu activists’. Konraad Elst, a Belgium Indologist, is sympathetic to Hindu nationalism, and is considered a Hindutva supporter. Yet even he, calls these theories absurd. Obviously, if this kind of rewriting is done, the new history wil have no credibility anywhere in the world.

Fortunately, the panel  appointed by the ministry, does have some serious and genuine scholars, and one has to wait to see what comes out of it.

George Orwell’s  predictive book 1984, was first published a long time ago in 1949. He portrayed how history was constantly being rewritten to serve the interests of the party in power, and was probably inspired by Soviet Russia, which, among many others, used history as a political weapon. More recently, Putin too has had  a hand in new Russian textbooks. In fact,  across the world countries have tried to change  versions of the past. In Chechnya, criticizing the Russians and portraying their negative role in their history is no longer allowed. In the USA there is an attempt to sanitize slavery and downplay the achievements of, and tragedies faced by, marginalized groups. In China, the Cultural Revolution attempted to destroy everything of the past. And in many former colonial countries there are attempts to criticise and set aside the years immediately after they gained independence, and to seek inspiration from a distant, and often mythical, past.

In the book 1984, Winston, the main character actually works in a department that obliterates and recreates the past. As he works, according to the dictates of the Party he puzzles over this. Why did they want to do this? And would a time come when there was no way of knowing what was true and what was not? If both the past and the world had no reality except in the mind, then could controlling the mind alter the past?  In his diary he writes:  ‘At one time it had been a sign of madness to believe that the earth goes round the sun; today to believe that the past is unalterable.’

But in the 21st century, it is difficult to understand this obsession with the past. Why not allow genuine historians to write history, while politicians focus on the present? Doesn’t the present have enough challenges? Though  politicians seem to believe in the statement, ‘He who controls the present controls the past. And he who controls the past, controls the future,’  the world is no longer isolated, and it may not work if the version of the past is so fictionalized as to be unbelievable.

[Roshen Dalal is a writer and historian living in Dehradun.]

 

Posted in History, India, India: States and Union territories

Lalu Prasad Yadav–his life up to 2002

 

Lalu Prasad Yadav

Ever since I read Lalu’s biography many years ago, I have appreciated a lot about him. It narrates how as a child, when he was herding buffaloes, the zamindars attacked him for wearing clean clothes and chappals. Later, when he became chief minister, for many months he continued to live in his brother’s room in the veterinary college, where his brother worked as a peon. At night he drove through the streets of Patna, distributing blankets to those sleeping on the pavements. Even later I heard about how he retained his down to earth nature, how his chief minister’s residence was an open house, where tea was constantly served and no one was turned away. Did he change, was he involved in corruption, or implicated in  something done by others? That the courts will decide.

Below is an extract from a book I wrote in 2002. However, this section on the states of India was  published in a very truncated form, as the book had become too long. Sharing it here. I have not added to what I wrote at that time, hence the narrative stops in 2002.

Bihar

After the emergency

In 1977, when elections were held again, the newly created Janata Party won in Bihar . In 1980, the Congress was back in power in the state and remained in control of the state government till 1990. During these years there were repeated changes in chief ministers.

1990 -2000

From 1990 onwards, Lalu Prasad Yadav  dominated the politics of the state. In March 1990, when elections were held in the state, the Janata Dal, into which the Janata Party had merged ,  won 132 seats out of 324 in the assembly. Along with their allies, which included the CPI, they formed the government.  Lalu Yadav was selected as chief minister and promised a new era.

 

New trend

In some ways Lalu represented a new trend in politics, as he was from a poor family, and identified with the common people.  Born in 1948, in village Phulwaria, in Gopalganj district of Bihar, he was a Yadav, one of the backward castes. His father had a few buffaloes and a small patch of land.  He was the sixth of eight children and they lived in a thatched mud hut at the edge of the village, away from the higher castes. There was little money and food. As a child, Lalu seemed different from the others, more independent and intelligent, and so was taken to Patna where his uncle and his brother had jobs in the Patna Veterinary hospital (as milkman and peon  ). They decided to educate him, and he passed school and college.  When studying at  B.N. College in Patna, he became interested in politics. In 1970, he got the job of a clerk in Patna Veterinary College, but left in 1973,  joined a law course and was  elected president of the student’s union. The same year, he married Rabri, a fourteen-year old girl, chosen by his parents.   In 1974, as we saw earlier, he led the student’s agitation, which soon became a nation-wide movement.  In 1975, during the emergency, he was arrested under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA). ( His eldest daughter, born at this time, was named Misa). He was elected to the Lok Sabha in 1977, and to the state assembly in 1980and 1985. He became the opposition leader in the Bihar assembly in 1989, and the same year was again elected to the Lok Sabha. His political career reached a height when he became chief minister in 1990. He was re-elected in 1995.

 

A popular leader

Initially, Lalu was quite popular, particularly among the backward castes. He spoke Bhojpuri, a local dialect and tried to help the poor. He mixed with the lowest castes and had houses built for them, as well as schools for  poor boys . The minimum wage for agricultural workers was raised. But despite all these schemes, the administration remained poor and development did not take place. Later, corruption cases further injured his image.

A new party

In January 1996, he became president of the Janata Dal. After this however, a decline started.

There were charges of his involvement in corruption in the animal husbandry department. Crores of rupees had been withdrawn through false bills, for the import of pigs and medicines, that were finally never imported, and for providing fodder. This process started at the time of the Congress, but continued under Lalu. The Janata Dal now wanted to remove him as president, and so Lalu split the party, forming the Rashtriya Janata Dal in July 1997.  On the verge of being arrested, he made his wife Rabri Devi,  the chief minister.  He was imprisoned for short periods, but claimed he was innocent and continued to supervise his wife’s government from jail. In February 1999 President’s rule was imposed in  the state. The next elections were held in the state in February 2000.

 

2000- 2002

Surprisingly, though even Lalu did not expect it, the Rashtriya Janata Dal again won the state elections, supported by the Congress. Rabri Devi continued as the chief minister. There were two main reasons for his success. One was in-fighting among the opposition, and the other, that no matter what his failures, many common people continued to identify with him, because he was of a backward caste, talked like them and knew how to communicate.  ‘Vote Lalu ka, raj hamara’ (if we vote for Lalu, we will rule), was one of the slogans used in elections, and having suffered from upper caste oppression for centuries, many genuinely felt this. Muslims also felt that they were safe under his government.

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Lalu again went to jail in 2001-2. The fodder case goes on. Rabri continues to be the chief minister [2002]. And Bihar’s problems, which started long before Lalu came to power, also continue. In 2002 Lalu achieved a new success, as he was elected to the Rajya Sabha.

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Posted in History, India

Lal Bahadur Shastri–and how he got his name!

Yesterday was the birth anniversary of both Mahatma Gandhi and Lal Bahadur Shastri. I asked friends if they knew Shastri’s real name, but none were aware of it. Below is an extract from my book The Puffin History of India volume 2, that reveals his name. It had always struck me as strange that such a simple man who dropped his own surname so as not to be identified with any caste, then took on a brahmanical one.

Looking back on those days I remember the food shortages. Shastri requested everyone in the country to skip one meal a week. Would that really conserve food? I don’t know, but most people, including my family, followed this.

The extract is below:

‘After Jawaharlal Nehru died, the major question was, who would

be the next prime minister? Gulzarilal Nanda, who was the

acting prime minister,was one possibility, while others were Morarji

Desai, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Jagjivan Ram. Kamaraj was in favour

of Shastri, and persuaded others in the Congress to support him.

Thus on 2 June 1964, Shastri was unanimously chosen as prime

minister by the Congress and assured the support of all the other

leaders. He was a short, slim man, 155 cm (5’2”) tall, always neatly

dressed in dhoti, kurta and cap.

A heavy responsibility

On his appointment, Shastri said, ‘I have been entrusted with a very

heavy responsibility, with the highest charge. I tremble when I am

reminded of the fact that the country and Parliament have been led

by no less a person than Jawaharlal Nehru . . . I can assure you I will

try to discharge my responsibility with utmost humility.’

Early life

Lal Bahadur Verma was born on 2 October 1904, at Mughalsarai

near Varanasi. In 1906, his father, a school teacher, died, and he was

brought up by his mother and various relatives. During his school

days, he dropped his surname, as he did not want to be identified

with any particular caste. In 1921, in his last year of school, he heard

Mahatma Gandhi speak, and left school without completing his final

exams to join the freedom movement.

A new name and a new life

Later the same year, he joined the Kashi Vidyapeeth, a national

educational institution, and graduated in 1925 with the ‘Shastri’

degree. From this, he took the name Shastri.After this he joined the

Servants of the People Society, an organization of service to the

nation, and worked both for this and for the Congress. He

participated in the Civil Disobedience Movement and other

Congress activities, and like Nehru, was imprisoned for a total of

nine years. In the meantime, in 1928, he married Lalita Devi, a

young woman of seventeen and over the years had four children.

His family lived in great poverty, specially when he was in jail.

Between 1937 and 1939, he was part of the United Provinces (UP)

Legislative Assembly.

After 1947

After independence he became the UP home minister and transport

minister and then held several posts in the union government. He

was minister for transport and railways in 1952, for transport and

communication in 1957, commerce and industry in 1958, and home

minister in 1961. He resigned in 1963 under the Kamaraj Plan, but

again joined the union cabinet in January 1964, on Nehru’s request.

As prime minister

When he took over as prime minister, the country was full of

problems. The sense of mission and dedication to a cause that had

been there at the time of independence, had diminished. The

Chinese war was a shock from which the economy had not

recovered. The Third Five-Year Plan had begun to show declining

growth figures.’

There is more on him in my book!

Posted in Books, History, India

Why is 2008 an Unforgettable Year for India?: ‘India at 70’ — An Excerpt

Penguin India Blog

Author Roshen Dalal in her new book, ‘India at 70’, explores the journey of India through its 70 years since Independence in the minutest details. The enthralling read is not just a dive into the rich history of the country, but also a celebration of the major milestones in every aspect and field of society.

In the following excerpt from the book, Roshen Dalal takes a deeper look into why the year 2008 will always be considered unforgettable in the history of modern India.

The year 2008 had some unforgettable moments.

Floods are not uncommon in the monsoon season, but in August that year, the floods in Bihar were exceptionally severe. River Kosi changed course, and over 2.3 million people were affected.

In October, the Indo-US Civil Nuclear Agreement was signed and was considered a landmark treaty. According to this, the US would provide India with nuclear fuel and technology…

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Posted in History, India

When the Journey Began: ‘India at 70’ — An Excerpt

Penguin India Blog

In 2017, India’s spacecraft Mangalyaan is orbiting Mars, satellites are regularly sent into space, the economy is growing rapidly and India’s diverse art and culture is appreciated globally. And, most importantly, India is the largest democracy in the world.

The story of India as an independent nation began seventy years ago, in 1947, when the country gained independence after almost 200 years of British rule. For the first time, India became a united political entity, a nation with clearly defined boundaries. What type of country would the new India be? Would it remain united and strong?

At this time, the territory known as India consisted of eleven British provinces and some additional areas directly under British rule as well as 565 Indian states (also called princely states) where the British had overall control. The Muslim League, led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, wanted a separate state of Pakistan, and finally it…

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Posted in History, India

India: 70 Years of Independence

Penguin India Blog

By Roshen Dalal

India celebrates 70 years of independence on 15 August, and we may wonder why this date is so important. A simple answer is that on this date in 1947, India gained freedom from almost 200 years of British rule. But further questions follow. What was wrong with British rule? How was it different from that of earlier invaders and settlers? Through the narrow passes and river valleys in the high mountains, India had seen many invasions from ancient times. Darius I (522-486 BCE)of Persia (Iran) included part of north-west India in his territories. Alexander, the Macedonian conquerer, too, came to the north-west in 336 BCE, but could not stay long. The Bactrian Greeks (from 200 BCE), the Parthians (1st century CE), Kushanas (1st to 3rd centuries CE), Indo-Sasanians (3rd -4th centuries CE), and Hunas (5th century CE), and were among other invaders. All of them set up…

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