Thursday, January 11, 2018

Decoding Bhima Koregaon, Nationalisms and History

                The violence orchestrated against the participants in the anniversary celebrations of the defeat of the Peshwas at Bhima-Koregaon this new-year eve, even while showing the desperate attempts by the votaries of upper caste domination of society, has also brought to the fore a debate on the use and abuse of history as a political weapon. All history, as Benedito Croce put it, is contemporary history; contemporary as in looking at the past from the concerns of the present and not as much as recent past. This, certainly is what history is capable of being and none, not even those who confuse history with chronicles, can wish away the use of history as a weapon.
                Thus, the defeat of the Peshwas, whose rule was marked by exploitation of the peasantry as was the case with the Moghuls who ruled the region before, by the forces commanded by the British and the foot soldiers consisted the Mahars, 200 years ago has now turned into a political weapon and the terrain happens to be the idea of the national. It is possible to read the events at Bhima-Koregaon in multiple ways. A plain reading of the battle in 1799 must lead to mere statements of facts: That an army, on behalf of the English East India Company, commanded by Englishmen gathered the Mahars, who had fought battles for other rulers earlier, defeated the army commanded by the Peshwa king and thus brought the region too under the company’s dominance.
                Historians, however, have not stopped there. Raising the question as to the what is it that led to the East India Company, a band of merchants who obtained exclusive rights to engage in trade with India (by an Act of English Parliament in 1600), waging battles and turning rulers, they located the answer in the transition in England in the 150 years after 1600. It was evident, by way of verifiable evidence, that from being traders in goods from the East and the Americas, Great Britain began to transform into an industrial nation and most importantly as manufacturers of textiles. The Industrial Revolution in England led to what historians have understood as colonialism and distinct from colonization. The two may have similarities and yet mark distinct developments in history.
                This transformation, indeed, was evident sometimes in the 1750s and historians have thus seen and established a connection between this and the fact that the Battle of Plassey was fought in 1757. The rest is history and it includes the battle at Bhima-Koregaon between the English-commanded army consisting the Mahars and the Peshwas, representing the pre-modern and pre-colonial. Neither is it possible to argue then that the Mahars represented the colonial order nor is it sensible to shout that the Peshwas were anti-colonial. The point is that such concepts as imperialism, colonialism and nationalism were not understood then, as they are now.
                The concept of imperialism, for instance, was first understood by J.A.Hobson in 1901 (incidentally the same year as Dadhabhai Naoroji came up with his thesis). And social scientists began grappling with the idea of the nation and nationalism only a couple of decades before Hobson arrived with his book titled Imperialism. Ernst Renan explained nations as an exercise in everyday plebiscite as late as in 1882. In other words, neither did anyone even think of such ideas as imperialism and nationalism in 1799 when the battle was fought.
                This is where the debate that is now raging over the violence against those who assembled to observe the 200th anniversary of the Battle of 1799 in terms of nation, nationalism and anti-nationals ought to be contested. While the detractors of the celebrations, desperate in a democratic republican order guided by one-man-one-vote to retain their hold over the institutions of power were certainly guilty of un-constitutional acts and ought to be dealt with in that manner, those who have taken upon themselves the mantle of speaking for the event – Umar Khalid, Jignesh Mewani and such others with them from the intelligentsia and a section of historians too – are clearly guilty of abusing history as a political weapon.
                It ought to be stated that invoking or attributing to the British commanders and the Mahar foot-soldiers any revolutionary consciousness – whether in the social or in the economic sense of the term – is as un-historical as do the other side who describe the Peshwa rulers as nationalist. The science of history indeed teaches us against such inventions and fabrication. The battle of 1799, indeed, belongs to the same league as the revolt of 1857, when the rulers and chieftains rose against the British to save their privileges as rulers and ended up resurrecting Bahadur Shah Zafar as the emperor. The idea of nationalism in general and that emerged in India in particular fall in a distinct category that is modern and anti-monarchy.
                Let me conclude this citing one of the wonderful historians whose 1876 work on the Paris Commune continues to be read to this day, Prosper Olivier Lissagaray, to support this point: ‘Whosoever invents false revolutionary legends for the people, amuses them with lyrical tales, is no less guilty than a geographer who draws up misleading maps for navigators’.  In other words, give the discipline of history its due and desist from abusing it. History, indeed, is a weapon.     


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