A response to Kasturi and Gomes’ article ‘Debate: History, Historians and the Many Ideas of India’

Megh Kalyanasundaram
10 min readAug 29, 2020


On Aug 18th, I had written this sentence-by-sentence response to Kasturi and Gomes’ article To Say That an Indian Nation-State Existed in the Ancient Past Is Historical Manipulation. In my response, I had demonstrated instances of manipulation, straw man fallacies, attempts at spreading misinformation, factual inaccuracies, an attempt at putting forth a contrived connection, multiple cases of false equivalence and a lump of unacademic, libellous ad-hominems. In points 32–33, 39, through specific engagement and with counter-examples, I had shown how the criteria they base some of their arguments on were hardly germane to the conclusions that were implied based those criteria. Of course, my response has not been responded to. Since then, much water has flown into the Arabian sea and two more pieces, both in The Wire, have appeared:

  1. Dr. Kaul’s striking, pointed, academic response The Empire Strikes Back: Ad Hominem as History (dated 26th August), in which she not only provided a “point-by-point exposé” but also spelt out the importance of the exposé: “…because it points to a larger malaise and diabolical method in some academic circles where independent scholarship is sought to be viciously suppressed and discredited by camps and coteries.”
  2. Kasturi and Gomes’ “reply” to Dr. Kaul titled Debate: History, Historians and the Many Ideas of India (dated 28th August)

This piece contains some of my initial responses to Kasturi and Gomes’ (KG) latest. They are initial, in part, because I am loath to give a sentence-by-sentence response right now. I will, hence, limit myself to demonstrating few examples: 1) of issues KG allege but which they themselves demonstrate in their own pieces 2) problematic application of critical thinking 101 (premises, conclusions, arguments, validity, soundness) 3) argumentum ad verecundiam (appeal to authority fallacy)

At the outset, “Debate” and “Many Ideas of India” in their title need to be remarked on. As I see it, “Debate” has been used as the very first word of the title so as to distract from what the first response from KG really was: libel, slander and more. I cannot know whether The Wire is party to the attempt to present this veneer: of a “debate”. Clearly atleast an apology is due from The Wire and KG for the libel and slander in the first article but here we are, seeing an attempt to pass all of this off as a debate! Now, to the “Many ideas of India’’ in the title. This phrase leads one to believe that KG believe that there could be many ideas of India. Yet, one of the things they allege in their article — “lack of clarity” — is evident in their own writing when one moves from the phrase “many ideas of India” in the title to the phrase “redrawing of the idea of India,” [Emphasis mine] in the very first line! Towards the end of their piece, they insert that “The idea of India is multiple…”. Now, if the idea of India is multiple, what exactly is meant by the idea of India? Are they implying Dr. Kaul is arguing for an idea of India that is devoid of multiplicity or that there was only one idea of India, or both? They surely attempted saying something to that effect of the former vide this statement in their first article: “Instead, Kaul’s assertion of a homogenous “Hindu” past is in the service of the current regime’s ideas of “Hindutva nationalism.”” This bluff of theirs was called out, though, by me (see p. 9 point 24) and then by Dr. Kaul herself: “If anything, the main argument of my article, italicised as it was too, was that the ancient idea of India embraced this country’s vibrant diversity as a core tenet. And yet, the two authors go out of their way to vitiate and obliterate this argument by conjuring up the spectre of “a homogenous Hindu nation” in their ‘response’.” As regards the latter, it looks like KG either missed (which is bad enough) or did not miss but ignored (which is clearly worse) Dr. Kaul’s careful inclusion of “an ‘’ before the idea of India she put forth, vide the following statement: “In my piece, I presented four concrete historical testimonies on an idea of India from ancient times” [Emphasis mine]. Instead of alleging “disingenuity,” as they have done, perhaps Kasturi and Gomes should avoid hoping that verbal gymnastics will help cover up their own lack of clarity and disingenuity. There is more that their very first sentence exposes though: they call themselves “professional” and “responsible”! One is left wondering if they felt pressurised to include these adjectives for themselves after their first response was ripped bare, more than once, for its falsities, fallacies, weak argumentation, libel and slander. In light of these, it clearly seems quite rich for them to attribute “ethical and responsible” too, to themselves.

We are not done with their first line yet, though. Between KG and Kaul, it is clear who is accusing whom of political motives and who is actually bringing political issues into this discussion. KG accused Kaul of political and ideological motives (which Kaul called out: “The authors of a recent article sought to counter my views by falsely attributing political and ideological motives”) and yet it is Kasturi and Gomes who are infusing contemporary politics in both pieces: be it, as in the first line, by referring to the current time as “a time when history has become an ideological site for the redrawing of the idea of India” or, as they do, in the line where they invoke “Citizenship (Amendment) Act and National Register of Citizens.”

Their attempt to brand Dr. Kaul’s “understanding” as “reductionist” and their self-professed point of importance — about Dr. Kaul leaving out examples that KG seem to care about — are both laughable: it was Dr. Kaul who provided atleast 4 concrete examples in her first (TNIE) piece, bolstered that with more evidence in her second (The Wire) piece and responding pointedly to KG whilst KG were displaying their reductionist application of criteria with statements like “There is not a single text or inscription where someone claims to belong to the country of Bharatavarsha,” which was called out in my earlier response (see point 32 in p. 11). As regards to the attempted jibe, about leaving out examples, while I don’t know this for sure, I am willing to bet that Dr. Kaul did not mean that one article in TNIE to be her last word on this topic, as was evident from subsequent examples in the next piece. Evidence of absence (in one piece) is not the same as absence of evidence for eternity.

What we have seen so far are some examples where Kasturi and Gomes display what they allege: 1) lack of clarity 2) disingenuity 3) active politicisation whilst accusing Dr. Kaul of it 4) reductionism.

Let us now look at critical thinking skills:

Premise 1: “According to Kaul, a nation is defined as “a notion consisting of a jointly held sense of belonging to a common territorial and cultural entity.”

Premise 2: “Further she claims that her article “goes on to demonstrate concrete examples of such an understanding of India in history.””

Their conclusion: “Yet, it is disingenuous for Kaul to argue that she is speaking of an idea of India that is merely cultural when she emphasises the importance of its presumed territorial unity.”

Not only is their argument not sound, it is not even valid given the fact that their conclusion does not follow from their premises. Additionally, there is the allegation that Dr. Kaul “is speaking of an idea of India that is merely cultural” [Emphasis mine]. I call it an allegation because I could not find Dr. Kaul saying her argument is “merely” cultural in any of her two pieces. The word “merely” is absent in both her pieces (also, see points 3, 9, 21, 24 in my earlier piece for instances of deployment of the similar trick but with another word). What’s more, KG themselves say, two sentences before (that is, Premise 1), that Dr. Kaul’s definition was not merely cultural!

I will close this article by dealing with the other part of Dr. Kaul’s definition of nation — territorial — and demonstrating another fallacy in KG’s argument: argumentum ad verecundiam (appeal to authority fallacy).

They write:

“However, B.D. Chattopadhaya has ably cautioned us against making such anachronistic connections between early representations of space, geographical imaginations, and the modern nation. In other words, it is ahistorical to seamlessly project categories and concepts of the present (nation) onto older cultural categories like Bharatavarsha. All students of history are taught that we must strive to grasp the past on its own terms and not reduce it to the present.” [sic.; the name should have been spelt Chattopadhyaya and not Chattopadhaya]

Let us, unlike KG’s just-cite-and-endorse strategy and with no further specifics, instead, engage with some of the material in his article The Concept of Bhāratavarṣa and Its Historiographical Implications. Kasturi and Gomes have written that “…it is ahistorical to seamlessly project categories and concepts of the present (nation) onto older cultural categories like Bharatavarsha.” Dr. Kaul has given her definition of nation. She has shown how her evidence is consistent with her definition. Has B.D. Chattopadhyaya (BDC henceforth) given his definition of a “nation” in the above-mentioned article? So far as I have looked, in the 30 pages (yes, I have the book, not going by the portion of pdf that is accessible for free) of the article, BDC does not define nation. He does write about what is “usually termed nationalism”: “identification of a particular collective sensitivity” (Chattopadhyaya 2019:3) but, so far as I have looked in this article, he has not defined what he thinks a nation is. Until his definition of nation is made clear, it is imprecise to assume that the notion of nation Dr. Chattopadhyaya is using is the same as Dr. Kaul and to compare the same. What is important, though, is that Dr. Kaul has given a definition and given evidence to back that definition. Since Kasturi and Gomes have invoked Dr. Chattopadhyaya to attempt countering Dr. Kaul, let me invoke Dr. Chattopadhyaya’s view on Dr. Kaul’s approach in one of her books The Making of Early Kashmir:

“Shonaleeka’s multidisciplined approach to the text has resulted in a fascinating exploration of the making of the special identity of early Kashmir”

While I am not looking to get into a full-fledged critical analysis of Dr. Chattopadhyaya’s entire article here, let me table one point on methodological appropriateness. Dr. Chattopadhyaya writes that “…since Bhāratavarṣa is very clearly a component of a much larger design, methodologically it may be inappropriate to identify the component with a concrete territorial unit and take it to represent a geographical reality” (Chattopadhyaya 2019:12). I am glad he used the word ‘may’ because it is not at all clear why it IS methodologically inappropriate to identity Bhāratavarṣa — even if it is part of a much larger design — with a concrete territorial unit when its territory has been clearly defined. Let me use two examples to make my case:

1) Viṣṇupurāṇa, one verse from which Dr. Chattopadhyaya deals with in some detail (in pp. 10–11) and

2) Mahābhārata, which Dr. Chattopadhyaya only mentions twice (in pp. 9–10), adds two endnotes (17, 22) but does not engage with any further.

Even in the case of Viṣṇupurāṇa, BDC writes that the verse he cites does “…imbue it with geographical meaning” (ibid.:11). While for him, correctly speaking, it should be cosmographical, for anyone who reads that verse for what it is — uttaraṃ yat samudrasya himādreścaiva dakṣiṇaṃ varṣa tada bhārataṃ nāma bhāratī yatra saṇtati — the geographical meaning is very clear. The point about Bhāratavarṣa being a concrete territorial unit is far more detailed in the Mahābhārata, which is, quite incommensurately (and I will show why), reduced to the following two endnotes in Dr. Chattopadhyaya’s article:

Mahābhārata, Sabhāparva, Digvijaya-parvādhyāya (2.6). (ibid.:27)

H.H. Wilson, The Viṣṇu-Purāṇa, pp. 133–4. (ibid.)

Citing Sabhāparva instead of Bhīṣmaparva, for a description of Bhāratavarṣa, is like missing the woods for the trees because Bhāratavarṣa in Bhīṣmaparva, even in the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute critical edition of the Mahābhārata, is described in 63 — I repeat — 63 verses (06010005a to 06010068c)! These 63 verses (in the critical edition) are attributed to Sañjaya in response to the following question by Dhṛtarāṣṭra:

06010001a यदिदं भारतं वर्षं यत्रेदं मूर्छितं बलम्

06010001c यत्रातिमात्रं लुब्धोऽयं पुत्रो दुर्योधनो मम ||

“Give me a true description of this land Bhārata-varsha, where these forces have so senselessly assembled, of which my son Duryódhana is so excessively covetous…” (Cherniak 2008:69)

06010037a अत ऊर्ध्वं जनपदान्निबोध गदतो मम

“Now listen while I tell you the names of the tribes inhabiting the land’s provinces.” (Cherniak 2008:75)

The territory of Bhāratavarṣa described in these 63 verses is not only extremely detailed but it also subsumes all of current-day India, and then more! From these verses, is it also not abundantly clear that it has been imagined, and written down, as a political whole too? To say that the territory of today’s India is a subset of the territory of Bhāratavarṣa as described in the above 63 verses is, unless proven otherwise, a clear statement of fact and to deny this is to suppress information contained in critical edition of Mahābhārata.

Map found in Purana Qila (Source: https://indictales.com/2018/03/23/a-fascinating-map-of-regions-and-places-mentioned-in-the-mahabharata/)

Through the above analysis, not only has it been shown that Kasturi and Gomes have indulged in argumentum ad verecundiam but also that Dr. Chattopadhyaya’s own analysis in this matter may not be the last word, leave alone being a universally accepted one.

Finally, let it also be recalled that the Indian Constitution does not contain the “nation-state” and the word “nation” occurs not only in the Preamble but also in the Fundamental duties:


FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation


c. to uphold and protect the sovereignty, unity and integrity of India;

j. to strive towards excellence in all spheres of individual and collective activity so that the nation constantly rises to higher levels of endeavour and achievement.