Friday, May 27, 2016

 History is not about the ‘greats’ any longer

            A letter from V.K.Singh, Junior Minister in the Ministry of External Affairs asking that Akbar Road be renamed as Maharana Pratap has now turned into a public debate. While it is one thing to debate on the role of kings and queens in history and whether at all such memory should be ensured by way of naming streets and roads in our towns, there is indeed a larger issue involved in these and it is one that involves the understanding of the discipline called history.

            And even before elaborating on this, it is appropriate to place on record that Minister Singh’s concerns have nothing to do with any serious reading of the history of the Battle of Haldighati or the guerrilla attacks that Maharana Pratap carried out against the Moghul chieftains anointed by Akbar after he defeated the Mewar ruler in 1576. And even if Minister Singh had studied some of these during his training at the military academy, his concerns could not have been that of a historian. He would have been taught the tact of guerrilla warfare in the academy only to deal with the enemy and not to valourise them. Let me not quarrel with such pedagogy for it is, perhaps, justified as long as it is done in order to train the officers of our armed forces.

            But then, as minister in the constitutional scheme, Singh should realize that he is no longer a soldier and that the armed forces are under the command of a civilian in our scheme now. That we are not a military state and that we, as a nation, had consciously opted for a constitutional democracy against having a general at the helm of our polity (even if the general happens to be a good person) is a fact that Singh had accepted when he took oath as a minister in May 2014. And that is why it makes sense to expect him to behave a civilian and thus respect history and events to be studied the way a historian would do.   

            It is true that history, as a subject, was taught as merely a narrative involving kings (and queens occasionally). Such narratives, based on accounts handed over by chroniclers, obviously accorded the victors with honorific suffixes. The chroniclers, after all, were courtiers who lived and prospered singing hosannas to the victors and hence it was quite natural that some kings were described the ‘great’: It is not only about Akbar but Alexander too was described in our school books as the ‘great’. However, one has not come across a worthy French historian using such an honorific suffix to Louis XIV (even while he is credited of holding ‘I am the state’) or to Napolean Bonaparte who took France out of the dark ages of the Jacobin terror; nor has any English historian sought to honour Admiral Wilson as the ‘great’.

            The point is that the age of revolution in Western Europe, during which kings and nobles were ousted, also known to have marked the birth of the enlightenment era in history led to a departure in the way history as a discipline came to be seen. Rather than being reduced to a chronicle of events or simple narratives, history began to be seen as studying the past. To paraphrase E.H.Carr, an author whose work is textbook for students of history in any university worth its name, that history is a continuous process of interaction between the historian and her/his facts, an unending dialogue between the present and the past. The point to be emphasized here is that history is about studying the past and not just reading or learning names and dates by rote.

            And by studying the past, where the historian and her/his facts are necessary to one another (once again from Carr), the discipline assumed a new meaning with the focus shifting from personalities to processes. More precisely, the Moghul era, as much as the period before that in Indian History came to be probed for such aspects as the social life, the economic structure, the process of surplus generation and thus locating the contradictions within that forced the rise and fall of not only different empires but also systemic changes. The lead in this regard came from Enlightenment historians and was picked up in India by the Marxists.

            Now, Minister Singh and his new found follower, N.C.Shaina (whose comparison between Akbar and Hitler revealed a certain disdain for history and its rigours) may jump around and declare their disdain to Marx and Marxist historiography. But then, this indeed is the critical point. Attributing ‘greatness’ to a ruler, whether Akbar or Maharana Pratap in this context, is indeed a prism through which history is sought to be studied by those who will then end up either celebrating one or the other king; the trouble is that this method will lead the historian to either condemn one or the other and ignore the fact that there existed people, the ordinary people who were held far away from the courts and the palaces to produce the surplus that went into the making of these empires and the comforts that the kings and their courtiers lived in.

            And such a history will then condemn the rebels, primitive or organized, as bandits or troublemakers. Just as the colonial administrators and their chroniclers described the rebellion of 1857 as a mutiny triggered by rumours of beef or pig meat being used to grease the cartridges of the enfield rifles! The problem is that this method of reading the past only through the regimes and the rulers and their goodness (or badness) helps shroud the people, particularly the oppressed, in a society into the oblivion. That the Bhils, among whom Maharana Pratap lived after escaping the Moghul army in Haldighati rose in rebellion subsequently and contributed in their own way to the making of modern India is what makes history a weapon in the making of democracy. Honorific suffixes to either Akbar or Maharana Pratap (or to stretch the argument of ridicule to its extreme to both) are only attempts to reverse the significant advances in the discipline of history and take it back to a mere chronicle of dates, personalities and events.

            And when history is taken back to its pre-enlightenment stage, the dangers are two-fold. One is that it will make the subject too boring and useless that children will not only hate it but will also find it useless; how does one with mere information on what happened when and nothing more become useful to society? This apart, the bigger threat is when such stress on kings and queens and one being ‘great’ and another’s claims to that being contested will take us back to those times from where human civilization has advanced. It is time we put a stop to this distortion of history.