Being a history student is not an easy task. You are questioned for choosing humanities after class 10 by your friends, relatives and even your own parents. Not all history students come from the humanities background, but many do. By the time you graduate, you have a brilliant response as a defence. “I am preparing for the UPSC!.” Yet, this article is not meant to elucidate the struggles of studying history, but rather the struggles of a history student in facing a world whose ideology and vision of history is so ahistorical. The struggle to deal with the historical myopia of the society and the struggle to convince yourself that you are doing nothing wrong in challenging those rigid traditions – religious, patriarchal, societal, cultural, which are so imbibed in our day to day living that they seem eternal and inevitable unless we realise that these notions are in itself ahistorical.
For most people, history is nothing more than a ‘bunch of facts’. It is easier to demarcate, categorise and classify than to critically analyse, introspect and be subjective. So, people will expect you to churn out facts, dates, events and it will be an arduous task to explain the developments in the study of history and how history is no longer a narrative of kings and battles. People get disappointed when they expect facts from us and we deliver theories. But this is not a simple problem. I am pointing out a grave social problem – conflicting ideologies, which see history just as a tool to justify and further their ideological claims.
Even though a history student steers away from generalisations, judgements, objective facts and clear demarcation of categories, every word you speak is seen as a representative of some ideology or the other. People believe in the extremes of the right wing and left wing political ideology. So, if you questioned the notion of ‘Akhand Bharat‘ or the Gupta age as a ‘golden period‘, you will be deemed a communist. Every day when I have discussions on history with people, I am asked questions. Are you a communist? Do you support the JNU row? I have to remind myself and the person that it has hardly anything to do with the present issue. When people insist on categorising me in any of their pre-decided categories, I have to offer them new categories like post-structuralist or post-modernist. I got a very amusing reply to this once. “I can’t even pronounce it, how am I supposed to believe in it?”
I don’t claim to be an exponent of any of these categories and we live in a world where people believe history to be an ahistorical phenomenon. So, the whole ancient period, which many people see as being equivalent to that of a ‘Hindu’ period, is a glorious period which turned into rubble with the onslaught of invaders who were predominantly Muslim. In short, some people envisage history as long periods without changes while others think of it as something which has had sudden and phenomenal changes. People who have just heard the names of big historians like Romila Thapar, R.S. Sharma, criticise them for writing incorrect history. What they actually mean is that views of these historians don’t fit with their understanding of history.
They want to demarcate good history from bad history and heroes from villains. They just don’t want history. They need sociological categories with a peppering of facts and figures. And this ahistoricity is maintained consistently in defining culture, institutions, and people. So, a nation is ahistorical, the origin of Indian culture is untraceable, mythology is real, and any attempt to explain otherwise is met with contempt. Deep inside, there is a lack of appreciation of historical knowledge. Every person thinks he knows history and that history is no special knowledge, but ironically, most people and even the ruling regime tries to alter history according to their own vision. History becomes a tool of commemoration, something people can take pride in, driven by political exegesis, expressed in a language that is in most parts rhetorical and pragmatic to the extent of being adamant.
A history student grieves when they see such disregard for history. We give new names to places to suit our historical understanding, and in the process manipulate history. When we decide to commemorate a particular version of history which glorifies one stratum of society over the other, it shows our attitude towards history. A student of history scorns at the absurdity of historical shows which are not only factually inaccurate, but also manipulative, communal and provocative. And we hate it when we have to clear the web for people who don’t see any difference between history and mythology. So, people will ask you questions on the historicity of Ramayana and Mahabharata. And the biggest misery of a history student lies in the fact that most people are very sensitive to religious issues.
Any explanation, no matter how historically well placed, may offend their feelings. Secondly, when people ask you questions related to religion, they are actually testing you and later blame your response to your English medium education and neglect of Indian culture, or they have pre-conceived notions about the issue and what they want is an affirmation of their viewpoints, and unfortunately this is one thing that our historical mind is unable to churn out. Forget strangers, distant friends, or relatives. You can’t convince your own parents that you are talking out of historical curiosity and not vengeance against a religion and a nation. We are not anti-nationals, we are not iconoclasts of religion. We are just students of history. People will give us ‘evidence’ of Ramayana and Mahabharata, or the greatness of their religion or civilisation. You are left with only two options – either keep on debating, putting forward arguments and counter arguments to no avail or to facepalm and nod in affirmation. People hate historical insights on religion, so they would question the authenticity of history. What is history capable of? History is speculative or history is imperfect. You will never be able to solve the mystery of our culture. No matter how much you try, you are a product of orientalist education. These are some of the jibes thrown at us.
Forget deconstruction of language, culture and traditions. People are not yet comfortable to go beyond the elitist paradigm of history, beyond the political contours which are memorised. As you can’t explain them in your language, you have to explain them in their language. Yet, even this process seems futile as people perceive history as a chronological exercise and an account of kings and queens. How ironical is the condition where people are unwilling to know their own existence because their mind is laden with accounts of a class unrelated to their past or present. They are better off either lamenting the loss of an elitist cultural glory or creating modern discourse out of an objective demarcation of categories of the oppressor and oppressed. The world is not ahistoric, but by identifying history in a particular way, we have made our own existence ahistorical. And by perceiving history as dead and buried, we are making our present seem ahistorical. Walking down the lanes, a history student sees the changing histories – every moment of our existence that is part of history. He sees the new history books of the new regime, the new nomenclatures for a place, new commemoration. He is seeing history being changed every minute everywhere, but deep somewhere in the lanes of history, there is a tunnel where all changes are sucked by the darkness of mind, and all that is left is a stagnant world with a history that is so ahistorical.