Sunil Khilnani on what it means to be Indian in a post-fact era, and dangers of mythologising history

post-truth - pəʊst:truːθ - adjective

"Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief"


The word post-truth may have been coined in 1992, but it has gained a new significance in the era of Donald Trump, Brexit and 'alternative facts'. At a time when narratives of a national scale are being defined and shaped using what are deemed less important facts, one grapples with the very idea of what is real — and this is not limited to America or the UK. Back home, historians, journalists and political commentators have at many points in the past and present found themselves at odds with a majority and State that is simply unwilling to accept the inferences drawn from and interpretations of their research, because it challenged their power or ideology directly, or because it went against the dominant narrative.

It is then unsurprising why the examination of post-facts which culminate into post-histories, and indeed the role of historians, becomes more relevant than ever. Professor Sunil Khilnani, Director of the King's College London India Institute and scholar of politics and history, said in an interview, "The purpose of scholarship is to engage with the public imagination, not just with other scholars," thus highlighting the need to present such information to the public, so that they may engage with it and have a balanced, informed perspective. Professor Khilnani held forth on the subject in the third Jehangir Nicholson Memorial Lecture held at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, drawing from the challenges he faces today as an academician.

Sunil Khilnani on what it means to be Indian in a post-fact era, and dangers of mythologising history

It is harder to write freely in a post-truth world, said Professor Sunil Khilnani

"The word post-truth is a cliché in an age when the American president outright denies facts. Masters of post-truths focus on emotion," he said. But how did we turn into such a society? Professor Khilnani said that it was result of the attacks on the works of historians, the collateral damage of which could even take the form of "being shot at one's doorstep" as was the unfortunate case of right-wing critic and journalist Gauri Lankesh. He said that people such as Dr Ambedkar and Rabindranath Tagore sought truth and awareness, and they and others who ensured India's independence created a "transparent moment" in history. "We have not been able to deliver this transparency today. India is a young nation, so there is a tendency to be protective of its image. We are sentimental, deferential. We deny the work of Tagore and Ambedkar. India was founded by open thinkers — men who were people, not pillars. They believed in frank, civil expression and public reason and logic. We are cynical, secretive now," he said.

He said that there is a tendency to frame narratives which deify, demonise, and mythologise both historical personalities and events, and which are singular and unidirectional in nature, which goes against one of the fundamentals of Nehru — of a pluralisitic culture with varied stories. He warned of the danger of mythologising facts, which prevents people from debating about them. "History has only been glorified. It is not appreciated when it is 'complicated' by asking questions. If you can de-mythologise, you can re-humanise. Evidence of pluralistic narratives is available aplenty, as Romila Thapar has shown in her work where she found that singular narratives are actually difficult to find," he said.

He warned about the dangerous tendency of memory to be exclusive and forgetful at the hands of political entrepreneurs, who he termed 'Godfathers of memory'. He said that fears stem from the view that history doesn't support one's view of the world. Democracies, where people are otherwise interested in the past and varied accounts of it, suffer the most due to simplified narratives, in his opinion. Prof Khilnani advocated that there must be counter-narratives, much like the counter-essentialist Indian response to the essentialist British portrayal of India in pre-Independence times.

To amply answer the question 'Who are we?' he says that we must think self-critically and challenge widely held beliefs. "We think of Ashoka as a non-violent ruler, but he had a blood-splattered youth, and he used violence against the forest people. We think we are a deeply spiritual people, but ancient texts like the Arthasastra talk about deceit, murder and ways to execute them. Women are turned into mythic symbols. Instead of an able ruler, Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi has been turned into a goddess," he said. He said that this was also true in the case of Rani Padmini who is at the centre of Sanjay Leela Bhansali's film Padmaavat. "People are fearful when figures such as her are portrayed as human beings with emotions. Vasundhara Raje said that 'Her myth is our self-esteem', which seems to suggest that myth is the only way we know ourselves to be worthwhile... We need to move away from such essentialism and romanticisation," he said.

Deepika Padukone and Sanjay Leela Bhansali.

Prof Khilnani spoke about how it is problematic that Rani Padmini's myth had come to define a group's self-esteem

In his book Incarnations: India in 50 Lives, he presents subversive personalities who questioned what was accepted by larger society. "It is the historian's job to show diversity. For very long, history has been reduced to being the polish that is used to burnish idols, or the mud to be slung towards one's enemies. The attitude towards historical inquiry must extend beyond facts," he said. He emphasised on the need to leave behind documents for the interpretation of history.

"Shutting down intellectual curiosity is patronising. Our prejudice in the way we view history is revealing about our own conceits," Prof Khilnani explained. He believes that apart from cultural differences, there are three other reasons why post-facts are generated. The first of these is economistic, which emerged in India in the 90s when there was an urge to dispose off history, which was considered baggage or bunk. It was not seen as having economic value. "The second is the substitution of memory for fact, whereby people give up on history. The third is weaponisation, visible in instances such as the Maharashtra bandh, where historical events were the basis to make present demands," he explained.

He says that all of these factors weaken knowledge. "It is harder to write freely. Values are being lost, and partisanship dominates narratives. Our identity becomes more elusive if historians do not continue their work," he added. He has noticed an optimistic trend, where people have attempted to make the present more transparent. "Guerrilla instances like the Panama Papers have shown that there are no objective facts, and I hope there will be more such instances," he said.

In most universities, courses on modern history are limited to the period up to the 1940s. JNAF trustee Cyrus Guzder recalled a conversation with Khilnani where the professor elucidated the importance of considering current affairs, and how we continue to draw from ancient knowledge to understand the present. "Sunil asked us to consider Jignesh Mevani's march to the Prime Minister's office... with the Constitution in one hand and the Manusmriti in the other. He was probably welcomed by a guard wearing a saffron hat, holding the Rig Veda and Arthasastra in his hands." He said that India's democracy gives us the opportunity to transform experience into history, which can serve as the reference for other post-colonial societies — "a more relevant reference than the US or Europe".

Prof Khilnani compared the way India's history is engaged with to that of the West, which he says is well-documented. For example, much of what we know about industrialisation as an economic change is from sources based on accounts of workers in Britain. "India seeks ways to expand its presence in the world, and ideas are the most ideal way to achieve this, not military or economic power. For India's history to become more central to the world, we must be more open to questions," he said.

In totalitarian regimes, the personality of dictators or theology are central, he explained, but in the case of democracies, history is vital. "Voters are confronted with choices that they are accountable for, and in order to make decisions, they draw upon what they know about choices made in the past," he said. "To falsify history is to weaken the state. It is the worst of all corruptions because it hampers the ability of the state to understand itself."

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Updated Date: Jan 13, 2018 14:49:44 IST

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