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The Necessity and the Difficulty of Writing History

"To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history." - Cicero

Cicero, the unauthorized historian to record to history of Rome has put it so aptly. This necessity of history makes the past so relevant not only to our present, rather also to our future. Any decision, any idea, not pivoted in the lessons of past is essentially flawed. The decision, the idea and the action which follows through could be innovative, brave, new but it needs to have its reasons in the dark alleys of the history. It is a great advantage to Human beings that we have a sense of continuity from our times, our children's times to a history dating back to the first known human being who ever walked on this planet and told how his day went while sitting around the fire after a long hunt in the jungle. 

Our history defines us as people. There is no two thoughts about it. This makes history an important tool to moderately and modestly bring about changes in our present world, when told well. This same feature about history makes it a tool for mischievous mind attempting to change the intellectual fabric of a nation's mind. It was an important tool in the colonial past. And trust me, it did not begin with the British. For Mughals too, India was a colony for a long time. It is evident from the attempts made by Akbar to reach out to the Khilafat, in Turkey, seeking recognition as an equal to the Caliph. Typically a colony is defined as a large group of people, ethnic people, being ruled by a smaller and more powerful, but numerically smaller number of people coming from foreign land. The disparate balance of power can only work by ensuring that the spirit of native majority is crushed in the believing itself to be inferior to the smaller but stronger ruling elite. This makes History an important tool and tempering with it an act of strategy to perpetuate the irrational power imbalance. 

George Orwell alludes to it when he writes, "He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present, controls the past." We see this theory very well applied in the British formulation of Indian academic. Unfortunately, the lies and half-lies which found place in our Historical studies, sometimes innocently on account of their lack of understanding our cultural nuances, and sometimes with devilish design to crush any sense of the pride the natives might have in their own history and culture, to bring them into not only military, rather a moral submission. Military submission weakens with time and is hard to perpetuate, primarily on the account of numerical inferiority of the ruling class. Moral servitude, on the other hand by taking away the pride in their own identity helps perpetuate the supremacy of the colonist. The colonials stop believing that they have a right to overthrow power. Their own history is so blemished, their own distrust in their own legitimacy is shaky that they accept the supremacy of the ruling race and surrender any desire to become free. 

This is what happened in India. History is a record of event. Politics make it lean to one end or another. Recently History has come back to haunt us in earnest. For a very long time, we believed the lies and half -lies which continued for so long, even after the British left India as free nation. The early rulers of the India, who set up a destiny, making us look almost like a despotic, loony monarchy, with an emergency rule thrown in, giving way to greedy men unable to handle sudden taste of power in the aftermath of emergency, allowed the academic history created in British rule continue with all its lies. The anglicized Indian rulers became what great revolutionary Bhagat Singh had predicted, Brown Sahibs replacing White Sahibs. Seemingly they understood this and felt comfortable in the continuance of the British system, unsure of their ability of self-rule, rather falling back on the British approval for legitimacy, and eventually when it could hold no more, falling back on hereditary legitimacy. The cabal of English speaking aristocracy came about from those who gained prominence by being closer to the British and by being educated in British system. They felt their lives, there charmed lives, of power, of riches depended on continued shame among the natives (even they themselves were natives, but they rarely believed it). It was a lie, and like any lie, in due course it began to wither away. This is the struggle that we find these days. As the darkness of ignorance tries to keep the light of the truth hidden, the compass of objective history oscillates vigorously. Only last month, I was in Rajasthan, one of the most historically rich regions of India, around the time the debate on a movie allegedly depicting Rajput Queen Padmavati in love with the attacker and tyrant Khilji came about. On one side were shrill debates and editorials in English about freedom of expression, on the other was noisy slogans of Rajput pride. 

Truth was all colored. But it lies somewhere in between. On one side is snobbish eye casting downgrading truth, one the other also, a outpouring of deprived people, people who have been deprived from the glories of their own ancestors. The truth sighs somewhere between the two. I remember, amid the slogans of Rajput and somehow, by implication, Hindu glory, reading the writing in Amer Fort, inscription by none other than a Rajput King, who gave himself the Mughal title of Mirza (Mirza Man Singh of Jaiput), on the walls where he profusely thanks the greatness of Muslim Mughal King Akbar for recognizing his kingdom and granting him enough support to help him build the fort. Truth is neither in the Rajput King who succumbed to Mughal power, nor in the Mughal power, in Emperor Akbar, who while did begin as soldier of Muslims, Ghazi, once spurned by the Turkish Caliph, turned to India, making friends with Hindus. Religion was a potent device to rally the soldiers. Everyone used it. He in fact effected the advise given by Iranian King to Humaun, Akbar's father, while Humaun was in exile. Akbar's initial years were undoubtedly marked with extreme cruelty. But if we look at the military culture of middle-east, even during Karbala, which was essentially Muslim versus Muslim, we understand that Akbar's cruelty was not of a Muslim fanatic against non-Muslims, rather it is a product of his times and his origins, even if we term as Islamic brutality of Middle-east from the times of the Prophet. I would think Akbar's motivation was military victory and throne of India, a rich and prosperous land, unlike the cold and dry deserts of middle-east, and religion was one of the tool he used to unit and rally his armies and eventually, to gain legitimacy. 

Rajput history is equally plagued with stories of betrayals and cruelty for the sake of power and huge inner fights. These wars were not fought to bring some benefit to citizen, or to protect their religion, but to protect and expand their powers. I always tend to believe that one major reason of loss of power of Hindu kings could be that later kings (after those who established worthy kingdoms, in bare and bland military camps) gave no reason to citizen to have a sense of belonging, with a huge gap in the living standards of the ruled and the ruler. So you have a complex systems for hot and cold water for luxurious baths of the kings and queens in Palaces in the most arid, most drought -prone region. We need to read the truth, know the truth in its objectivity. Thus we may learn our past greatness and also our past mistakes. Both equally necessary for a fulfilling future for our children. One visit to Singapore National Museum, which tells the history of Singapore in such a structured pattern, makes one wanting for such a method to be deployed in India, with all honesty (on one information board, it mentions British Raj women in inverted commas as Memsahibs, mocking the social divisions brought in by the British without hiding). We needed teachers who understand history and who can teach history with enough sensitivity, without lying and without some kind of Monkey balancing. Those men, Mughals, British, Rajputs, Mauryas, Gupta, Cholas and Chalukyas, were products of their times. I do not think that they imagined that someday, hundreds of year after they are gone, we will sit in judgment of their actions. Let's not judge them. Let's know them, understand them and their times. I believe they all had a dust of greatness in them, which makes their names survive the forgetfulness of a hasty generation, searching greatness for themselves in the past. Whether it was Rao Jodha, probably breaking bread with his soldiers in his camp establishing a city much before the royal dinner table became out of bond for the commoners, or it was Akbar praying to the Sun, facing east, much to the chagrin of Mullahs, pondering about his place in the history, greatness is not the fiefdom of one religion, one race, one ideology. We must come to terms with our history and become a citizen assured of our place in the modern world and not become fanatics of our own fantasies. I am no Historian and mostly benefit by reading, on my own or following some great people on twitter (like True Indology- @trueindology , Dimple - @dimple_kaul and @sona2905) , but I do believe, in all its imperfection, the answers to the future are often hidden in the past. History writing is often impacted by the leanings of the writer. But that is how History writing is, that is how it should be. We must read enough to sift through the false and emotion and find the objective truth. And truth has many faces, depends on how the Sunlight falls on it. Let's not hold it against ourselves for the way we view it, as long as that view is not borrowed from someone, or forced by someone- as long as it belongs to us, based on our interpretation of facts, it is our solemn truth.  A quote of Julian Barne reflects perfectly on this very inadequacy of history which makes it so adorable at the same time. He wrote in The Sense of an Ending "History is that certainty produced at a point the imperfections of memory meets the inadequacy of documentation." 


Anonymous said…
Very interesting thoughts! I like the idea that history is "our solemn truth, based on our interpretation of facts."
I guess we could deal with different interpretations of the same historical events by different historians, if conscious efforts were evidently made not to distort facts.

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