Carefully crafted theoretical formulations of history and imperious political decision-making on-the-go have one thing in common — in essence, they’re both didactic. Consider the following statements:
“History rises up to us figure by figure, life by life, effect by effect. It is our task to penetrate them to the bottom of their existence and to present them with complete objectivity”.
— Leopold von Ranke, 19th century
“About Tipu Jayanti, we are going to drop everything and we are also thinking to drop everything in the textbooks about him.”
— BS Yediyurappa, 2019
But in historiographical terms, it’s actually quite a giddy ride from A to B: from the avowal of untrammeled empirical objectivity when observing historical facts, events and personages — to the consummate erasure of history itself. No, we haven’t come full circle. Rather, this is some colossal broken arc, and we now perch precariously at its edge, ready to topple into the void.
Currently, the popular narrative of India’s Islamic past tends to oscillate between two extremes. It’s polarised, unidimensional, unempirical at crucial points, and hinges on parsimoniously tagging labels to historical figures, typically one per head. So that we have the pugnacious Aurangzeb on the one hand, or as in the present example — the 18th century ruler Tipu Sultan, revisited and vilified for “not being a freedom fighter”. At the rarified other end of the spectrum stands the Mughal prince Dara Shukoh, haloed in his new appellation as the “emblem of Indianness”. Both of these characterisations suffer from the same anachronistic logic. To me, the entire debate of whether or not Tipu was a “freedom fighter” is specious, because the very term pre-necessitates an outside power having already occupied one’s country or dominion, which wasn’t the case.
When it comes to Dara, the anachronistic fallacy lies in imposing the concept of “Indianness” — in other words, nationhood and nation-state, and more specifically, the personification thereof in the form of a deified Bharat Mata — onto the medieval Mughal world. However, in India the consciousness of nationhood has evolved as the product of a much later historical process, viz. the idealistic-patriotic reaction to the brutal British colonial experience and rather more tenuous associations with 19th century European history, such as the Germanic Freiheitzkampf (freedom struggle) during the Napoleonic regime. All of which historian Sugata Bose has been at pains to explain in his book, The Nation as Mother — and Other Visions of Nationhood.
So when such a narrative becomes the official stance of democratically elected legislators, that’s problematic enough. Even more worrisome, though, to return to Yediyurappa’s original comment, is the notion that it’s kosher not only to ply and paint over historical events till they begin to conform to one’s predetermined position — but to deliberately expunge from the pages of history whatever or whoever one deems to be unworthy. There’s the obvious danger that the authoritarian tenor of a politician’s comments will swiftly turn into policy, and then its implementation on the ground. Its underlying thesis is alarming — that history is like some sort of wordy political manifesto, the contents of which can be modified at will, whenever expedient to do so. But there’s yet another problem with the erasure approach: it actually ends up weakening the very cause it purports to defend.
Examine this with regard to Tipu. Why would one wish to cancel the Tipu Jayanti celebrations, instituted in its earlier term by the previous government, and strike him off the pages of history? Presumably, to uphold democracy and secularism. Because a relook at the facts of the Sultan’s life unravels a whole new perspective: a story of despotism and religious intolerance, forced conversions, demolition of places of worship, mass murder. But avoiding the mention of Tipu’s name won’t keep the ghosts at bay, neither the injustices and victims of history, nor the memory of the man who brought them about. If Tipu’s legacy has been to create a deeply divisive people, erasing his name won’t solve the problem and automatically bring those people together. Instead, why not revisit the past with fresh eyes and chronicle it objectively? If the myriad transgressions of Tipu have been glossed over in favour of a “heroic freedom fighter” narrative, why not craft the new narrative, and debate it?
I’m neither an apologist for nor a sweeper-under-the-carpet of historical crimes and their perpetrators. My point is simple: erasure is not the same thing as oblivion, it’s merely an unthinking — and ultimately unsuccessful — attempt at denying the past. Old wounds, specially those festering along sectarian lines, will not heal by themselves. More effective in this regard will be the revival of a culture of open, sustained dialogue and exchange, complemented by the spirit of inquiry, and the love of objective, rational thought and expression. State appointed or self-styled, today we have the watchdogs of ecology, the economy, sanitation and education, custodians of tradition, culture and faith. But what of History, which we proud Indians ought to celebrate?
There’s this vintage song that film buffs, lovers of old classics and shairi may recall: 'Jinhe Naaz Hai Hind Par Wo Kahan Hai'. Written by Sahir Ludhianvi for Guru Dutt’s Pyasa, its verses are steeped in a desolate longing, which is at once inquiry and refrain:
“Kahan hai, kahan hai muhafiz khudi ke
Jinhe naaz hai Hind par wo kahan hai”
In India, the muhafiz (custodian) one sorely needs today — is that of History.
Avik Chanda is the author of Dara Shukoh: The Man Who Would Be King
Updated Date: Nov 03, 2019 09:59:27 IST