If I don’t care about you and you do not care about me – at least nominally, then what is the point of coexistence? What is the point of bickering on social media? What is the point of this politics of disengaged tolerance? In the last few years, people all over the world have had to come to terms with this question in a dramatic way. The social fabric of countries and democratic morality of people seem to have ebbed away quite enigmatically. In such a scenario, an understanding of history is quintessential- both for our present and our future.
We live at a time when leaders lie shamelessly, without any attempt to conceal. Right from the revered remains of the Red Fort to the virtual vicissitudes of Twitter, lies abound not just about our present but also about the past. I do not claim that understanding of history is either uniform or static. Whatever they may be, these understandings have to be underscored by some facts and truths.
A common assumption of a modern, bourgeois person is the inevitability of progress; that things will eventually turn for the better without disturbance to the status quo. Say that to Nehru or Gandhi or Patel. Say that to JP or Vajpayee. Say that to King or Mandela. If progress was inevitable, then what was the need for their and so many others’ struggle? If we, as people, just assume that some leader will always emerge to save us from doom, we are fooling ourselves.
At the same time, history is not a myth either. Today, in India, there is a tendency to equate myth with history. To fall into that trap is to banish the deliberations of history to the fantasies of supernatural. Not only does it render our social existence baseless, it also leaves our future vulnerable to the whims and fancies of the powerful. Knowledge about what our ancestors did in the past, how they tackled challenges and what we should learn from them- these are essential cultural artefacts of any society. Those who shape these wield an enormous influence on the future paths of our countries and ourselves.
From denying role in Sikh riots of 1984 to asserting that ancestors of Muslims were Hindus, we see today a new kind of contest in politics – how far one side can twist history to suit its narrative. The sad part is citizens have become engaged in the same propaganda that the politicians do. We even lionise those who twist history to suit our narrative. We, as citizens, have forgotten our past while being deceived into believing the false narratives of leaders.
It was a much less educated India that defeated the British and gained independence. A much less educated India brought down the government of Indira Gandhi after the Emergency. It was the citizens who voted out the corrupt Congress regime in 2014. But it would seem that we have also come to accept, even deify, political leaders who pointed fingers at other groups rather than showing us the way forward. Today, we debate not the actions but the words propounded on Twitter. Secularism is fine as long as it remains meaningless while the ‘battle’ is carried out by other means.
The dog-whistle does not terrify us. We participate actively in such activities. We feel indifferent to the plight of the ‘other’. Even laugh about it! Why, if not for the lack of empathy? Why, if not for a lack of understanding? Why, if not for sadistic pleasure? Why, if not for helplessness? Why, if not for lack of knowledge of our history and of those around us?
Our curiosity for things seems to have increased relative to our curiosity about people. The regular, sometimes mindless lifestyle is too dear to let some disruption of thinking into it. We have become more reflexive than reflective, more noisy than thoughtful, more irascible than patient, more critical than introspective. It seems all we lack is a need to understand history.
The question is- Was this inevitable? Can we change it? Also, is what I am saying a myth? Or will this be just a blip in the historical understanding of history?
Note: I am no expert in History, nor do I understand it as much as I would like to. But as I have started to read, I have become more curious. Some books I have read recently are The Other Side of Silence, The Case that Shook India, Night, Purifying the Land of the Pure, Age of Anger, An Era of Darkness, Code 2.0. These are by no means ideal History books, but they have disabused me of many notions I had about historical events.