In my opinion, history can only be ‘judged’ in the present. It can only happen when an individual, who has diligently followed the course of actions in the bygone years, is ready with a judgement. History can be ‘judged’ when parallels have been drawn by such a person, between different towering historical figures who have been in the thick of things, personalities who had kicked off a particular course of actions or diverted them or even stayed from it. No matter how tall they may stand in history, they cannot be spared this judgement.
‘Judging’ is a very humane attribute. As the nihilist Rust Cohle from “True Detective” puts it aptly, “Look, as sentient meat, however illusory our identities are, we craft those identities by making value judgements. Everybody judges all the time. Now, you got a problem with that, you’re living wrong.” But when people judge a particular period of history and the personalities who have not only lived in that period but have also shaped it, questions are asked and answers sought.
One particular question that fascinates a scholar and a dabbler alike is the ‘what-if’ question. And once this question takes hold of the imagination of people, it ceases to be a question. it becomes a narrative. This ‘what-if’ narrative is a part of democracy – and it can only be a part of a democracy. If history is unquestionable, it probably suggests the absence of democracy.
‘What-if’ narratives often pit leaders against each other – baring their shortcomings, outlining their efficiencies, scrutinising their personal lives, and also bringing into light the lurid details of the scandals they may have been involved in. ‘What-if’ narratives use facts for a discourse that’s entirely imaginative.
Such narratives are also used by demagogues to fuel the masses. Recently, Narendra Modi did the same. And no, I don’t intend to say that he was a demagogue when he pitted Vallabhbhai Patel against Nehru and said the fate of India would’ve been different had Patel, not Nehru, been India’s first Prime Minister. It kick-started a debate that’s not new in nature – and coming from the PM, it was sure to ruffle some feathers. The BJP has, for long, striven to appropriate Vallabhbhai Patel (or at least, his image). However, it’s bewildering to see how BJP willfully put aside the fact that Patel never wanted the RSS to have a say in politics back then. Perhaps, it will be even more bewildering if someone argues that the RSS really doesn’t have a say in politics today.
The Patel vs Nehru discourse has been a debatable topic for long, but recently, it has found more space in the political and intellectual discourse. In my opinion, the BJP’s appropriation of Patel is a result of the Congress’ disowning of Patel. For long, the Congress discarded Patel and ignored his achievements and feats – and the BJP, in its desperate attempt to find a leader who acted as a vital cog in the freedom struggle, besides being the lynchpin in uniting the country post independence, turned to the Iron Man of India.
The BJP chose Patel because it believed, and continues to believe, that Patel shared their ideology. However, this claim that the BJP’s ideology is similar to Patel’s is erroneous, fatuous and factually vacuous. It shouldn’t come as surprise to anyone that Patel initially was not very much keen on making Kashmir a part of India. But BJP won’t tell you this, because if they do, they’ll belie the claims of its supremo. Cherry-picking instances from history and making deliberate use of the selective amnesia to create their own version of history is what the ruling dispensation wishes to do.
They won’t even discuss that much before Jinnah, it was Lala Lajpat Rai who wanted a partition (that’s a different debate, though). Supposedly, Patel was chosen their leader not by the Congress Working Committee but by the Pradesh Congress Committees. And he was denied the prime ministersial position by Mahatma Gandhi , who believed that Nehru, with his secular and global outlook, was a better man to hold the position. Patel was perhaps a little too much orthodox – and any more orthodoxy in years following the partition would’ve just exacerbated the situation. Gandhi therefore chose his non-Gujarati disciple.
However, did Patel defy Gandhi? No. Did he even ask why? No. Being older than Nehru, he did exactly what’s embedded in the Indian societal tradition – elders sacrifice.
When the BJP rides on its expedition to take over the legacy of Patel , upholstering their historical narrative with select instances to swiftly spread their ideology, they are merely using Patel as the Congress has used Gandhi. While judging history in the present, we can’t turn a blind eye to the context of past. If you are someone who learns history through messages forwarded on WhatsApp, do remember that history is being reduced to a ‘mummer’s farce’ for your sake. And don’t believe whatever a politician tells you.
Read good books, and go through arguments and counter-arguments. Favouritism may play a part when you judge two historical personalities, but that’s okay too, if you have developed your perception after assiduously reading the relevant history of these personalities.
And in the end, ask yourself a question – is this all really worth it ?