Holding history at gunpoint

Parvati Sharma | Updated on December 12, 2019

Why so: New India is demanding from an old past   -  ISTOCK.COM

It has become standard practice to blame epochal events in history for actions taken today

This is a story we often tell ourselves in my family: Sardarji, my maternal great-grandfather, owned a general store in Lahore and subscribed more sincerely than most to that merchants’ tenet ‘the customer is always right’. One day, a man came in to return a flask; he claimed to have found it damaged after he bought it. Without argument or demur, Sardarji replaced the flask. Time passed; Partition riots broke out across the city, and Sardarji was in the sights of a mob when a voice called out, guiding him to safety. It was that satisfied customer, a Muslim policeman it turned out, who was able to help the Sikh shopkeeper escape.

All families have their archives of anecdotes; and like all family anecdotes, this one works both as a glue — a story to tell at family dinners, to new initiates, when we put up our feet after weddings — and as a kind of beacon. There is a pledge implicit in it — that we should aspire to Sardarji’s artless honesty; and also a hope — that lone men can undo mobs.

The history of nations works a bit like that too, I suppose. It cannot be coincidence, after all, that the three ‘greats’ of our textbooks — Ashoka, Akbar and Gandhi — all embody the syncretic values that were essential to the idea of the newly formed Indian State. That history was a nation-building exercise, especially in the early decades of India’s independence, is not surprising. All countries need a story to hold them together, and what if not secularism was the binding glue for modern India?

The journalist KS Komireddi’s finely polemical book Malevolent Republic includes a brief two pages taking aim at historiographers “tasked by the secular Congress establishment to clarify India’s past”. According to Komireddi’s argument, these scholars were “motivated by the desire to do good” but achieved the opposite. The harm they did was to blur the destruction wreaked by Muslim conquerors and kings. Or, as Komireddi puts it, in the arguments and textbooks produced by these historians, imperialism “was destructive only when Europeans did it. When Asians did it, it was a cultural exchange programme”.

Komireddi writes with flair and conviction; as a friend said the other day, he read Malevolent Republic in one breath, which is very much the breakneck speed at which Komireddi himself recounts the destruction of every institution, the breaking of every promise that has brought us to what he calls “the most degraded moment in the history of the republic”. His argument is depressing, convincing — and highly recommended reading; but when it comes to our past historians and historiography, I cannot quite agree.

For one thing, my memory of schoolbook history is not so much of ‘good’ conquerors vs ‘bad’, but more of a series of worthy men — and occasional women — who made modern India. As journalist Supriya Nair has written in a review as thought-provoking as Komireddi’s book, her 1990s history syllabus left her with an “unaffected admiration of both Shivaji and the Mughals”.

It is true, on the other hand, that this idea of centuries-old historical figures working doggedly towards the greater national good can acquire an almost parodic quality, as, for example, in a 1957 biography of Akbar by AL Srivastava, in which the 16th-century emperor is credited with the establishment of “national Indian” schools of painting, music and architecture. It’s worth noting, however, that Srivastava can’t quite disguise his suspicion of his nationalist Akbar’s religion, whom he describes as having been, for many years, “a good, though tolerant, Muslim” — as if the two qualities were mutually inimical. Even more intriguing is how Srivastava deplores the fact that Hindu “pandits and princes” of the time were not “broadminded enough to accept [Akbar] as a member of our faith”; and relates a legend that tries to rectify this lapse by proposing that Akbar was the reincarnation of a Hindu hermit who undertook a penance to be reborn a Kshatriya and “exterminate Islam from India”. However, writes Srivastava, “as luck would have it, he was... born a Muslim”.

Nationalist historians’ readings of the nation’s past may not have been as straightforward as Komireddi suggests, but they did offer a beacon: That an age-old instinct towards unity, non-violence, and, yes, secularism — no matter how wishful — led us to our unified, non-violent, secular present. The problem is not, as Komireddi argues, with the specific formulation itself; the problem is that when such formulations exist, they can so easily be flipped. If, that is, a certain kind of past is credited with creating a certain kind of present, a new kind of present — New India’s new nationalism — must have its own kind of past.

And so it becomes necessary for New India to demand answers from an old past: How dare Aurangzeb have a road named after him in Delhi, how dare Mir Baqi build a mosque in Ayodhya? How dare, I might as well ask, how dare that policeman in Lahore demand a new flask? It becomes necessary to dig frantically and ‘discover’ a past that represents the nation now being imagined — a past in which Godse is the patriot, Gandhi the traitor.

To look at the past for beacons of hope, that may be naive; to demand that the past submit to revenge from the present? That is only a way of kissing our future goodbye.


Parvati Sharma is a Delhi-based writer and the author, most recently, of Jahangir: An Intimate Portrait of a Great Mughal

Published on December 12, 2019

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