Thoughts on history and history writing
Can historians take the role of political activists?
Indian academic historians just did this type of roles!
One school of historians passed resolutions against the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi.
They very same school also opposed the Babri Masjid demolition case referred to the Supreme Court.
The so-called other school, the rightwing school, that allied to the BJP/RSS agenda helped to rewrite the history texts that extolled the activities of the RSS.
Where were the nationalist historians? They were lying low.
Even now, the Indian academic historians don’t ask the critical questions, they don’t ask great questions of history. Questions like: will Indian remain one country? Will India get more united, in its very many divisive forces, in terms of language, ethnic chauvinist politics, and religious bigotry?
There is no open-minded approach to the study of religions in his story of India. Much more important from my point of India is the question: how the British interpretation of Indian history (we cant deny the contributions of the British officials and writers in unearthing and discovering so many forgotten and lost historic sites and also the contribution of the Western knowledge to the study of the emergence of modern India) and also the outcome of the British occupation and dominance of the Indian thought processes and the very Indian outlook. How the present Indian mindset, the very mental makeup of Indians is one of subservience and suffers from a sense of deep inferiority complex. These aspects, I consider, as the most critical questions Indian historians must explore, explain and give some guidance in history teaching and history education.
History writing must start with current realities!
What is the historic meaning of economic recession?
What is the historic meaning of international terrorism?
What is history? History is and had always been about wars and the ending of wars. History can also be about big persons, leaders and about evolution of ideas.
History is one of the social sciences. As such, it must tackle political and social and sociological questions as much as even wars and waves of society’s rising and fall.
Why after building, say, the Parthenon, the Acropolis in Athens suddenly one day it became an empty place? So too the Roman colosseum, so huge an architecture suddenly one day became empty?
Why our archeological sites are important? What they convey?
History tells us, as historians from Herodotus to Thucydides to Edward Gibbon to our own times, historians like A.J.P.Taylor and others why the fortunes of a people, nations and superpowers, change dramatically. The dramatic changes on huge scale are all about history and history writing is just this only.
The 69th Indian History Congress was held in Kerala were both interesting and also a bit boring.
The historians, all are professional historians, met and debated a lot of themes in history, in history writing and the underlying conflicting ideologies in writing history. Pof.K.N.Panikkar, the Left historian and the session’s president gave the inaugural lecture and his theme, as expected, was on the Marxist interpretation which he sought to tag to the writing of Indian history. His theme was that Marxist historiography, the art of writing history from the Marxist point of view, didn’t pay enough importance to the element of culture. Anyway, it is one point of view. There were other points of view and some were explained by Prof.Habib. There were many schools of thought in history writing and one was culture, another was subalterns in the creation of history. The other was the employment of tools from Western scholarship to the study of Indian history. Edward Said was one who believed that you can’t study orientalism from the tools shaped by Western schools of history writing.
And so on and so forth. However, the current Indian historians’ bugbear, the communal vs. the Marxist history, as represented by the BJP and others came out in the deliberations.
Why the current divide in the Indian history writing between the Left and the not so right?
It is a difficult question and I would consider as a not so great question otherwise.
I had studied history as an amateur and my keen interest in history continues to this day only as an amateur only. I had read my own volumes .often in a superficial way, skipping through the pages and yet getting interested in some vital questions.
Here, before I proceed further I like to raise some questions as I read through the newspaper reports on the proceedings of the 69th Indian history meet.
Yes, Panikkar’s lecture left me cold for I was not interested in the Marxist views on anything, more so the Indian history writing. There were other greats on the dais, Prof.Irfan Habib, Prof.Romila Thapar and Champakalakshmi and others. There was one Subbaiah from Santiniketan on using literature as a source material for the study of history.
Subaltern’s view of history is that you cant have a meta-history of the type of the grand narrative in the Marxist mould as we can have and as we have and had from the hands of such historians like Arnold Toynbee or even such amateur like Oswald Spangler who wrote a widely-read book, “The Decline of the West” and books in that genre.
Anyway, having read some bits and pieces from the past, histories starting from Horodotus, History of the Peloponnesian War and of course the greatest of all, Edward Gibbon’s “The Decline and Fall of Roman Empire” I have developed my own thesis, however imperfect and flawed from the professional historians’ points of view.
Here is my thesis:
When historians meet and I consider history also as one branch of the social sciences, one expects any thoughtful person or persons would start from the ground realities of the day and times.
The historians, at least Prof.Habib referred to globalisation and its impact on the way history is now being impacted.
I was wondering whether the 69th Congress started seeing the world in the light of the current economic recession and sought or gave any explanation. Why the world economy, after so much of globalisation and expansion and also spreading years of unprecedented wealth creation across the globe and thereby for the first time in history the world had seen such unprecedented economic expansion and then suddenly there is this economic recession?
Also, for India, there is this additional new phenomenon of an unprecedented rise in terrorist attacks and that ended the year with the almost war-like situation by the Mumbai terrorist carnage. Why these things happen or happened?
And what history will hold for us in India?
The eminent historians who assembled on the north Kerala campus must have asked some such questions that agitated the Indian minds. Why even the minds of the people outside the country.
Yes, the historians seemed to have asked whether history, the past can give any clue or lesions for the present.
But the question seemed to be of minor academic interest. The current turmoil in which the world had been caught didn’t seem to catch the fancy of our academics or our senior historians who must have, one guessed. Had some vision or wisdom about the happenings of the past as well as those that are happening in our own present.
A question that came to haunt me as I was reading through the deliberations of our eminent historians was: will all the growth in economics and society, the radical changes and also the evolution of the polities of the nation states, the very world polity that had somehow prevented wars since the Second World War, would suddenly give way?
Will all our civilisation and culture and much of what man had achieved all these years might suddenly come to an end?
Why, I asked myself, all of a sudden one day Roman Empire declined?
Has the world become historically a better civilisation? In terms of world advancement and human achievements? Yes, one must say considering the spread of material civilisation as well as in terms of human betterment, in terms of spread democracy.
There is much to be said about the current state of the world. There is also much to decry about the continuing barbarity of mankind, the continuity of wars as a way to solve international and national conflicts. There is still much sufferings, even poverty is endemic in large parts of the world and so too the denial of freedoms and a sense of justice across a wide spectrum.
The theme had been explored many times and by many historians and thinkers.
So, I asked, will our present civilisation’s evolution, as a war-free world, I mean the absence of world scale wars since 1945, will go one day suddenly out of our view and we will face some historic sudden collapse?
Why economic recession so worldwide? Why international terrorism is so strong and persistent and what drives man for such savagery and so much ruthless killings?
Unless the historians ask some such questions and help the common man to get his sensitivities roused into some positive thinking and action, what purpose our history writing and history studies would serve any useful purposes?
History is not for professional historians only. History can be written not just by professional historians alone. History can be written by anyone who has a point of view, who has wisdom and an engagement with the world.
History must serve a wide variety of purposes. To better the world, first of all.
From this point of our professional historians, mostly Indian scholars must go beyond their current concerns that are very limited and serves very limited uses only.
Communal history won’t change the otherwise a very much secularising world and a more liberal world. So too the obsession with Marxism for the few historians is also misplaced.
So too there will be biases in writing and interpreting history. The Americans, the British historians will have their own prejudices when it comes to interpret Indian history.
Indian history must be seen from the point of view of a global history and then only India would play its rightful and more dynamic role in shaping the modern world, to prevent wars and promote peace processes across the globe.
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