the 6th of December,
the axes, the hammers,
that would dismember a mosque and a nation
that has since then –
only walked on embers.”
– Akhil Katyal
History has always been about the act of coming into confrontation with what is there, with what is apparently very obvious and in front of our eyes, that supposedly doesn’t hide anything more than what meets the eye and challenging that very notion but the way human histories are being taught in educational institutions today, aren’t how they work. It is impossible to classify the complexities of the human mind to brass tacks, how then are we expected to conform to an epicentric view of history?
A lot of India’s history written up until thirty years ago was extremely Congress-centric and while that history is safe, it has caused us to ignore the other aspects of truth for a long time. In such cases, the axiom that ‘whoever controls the present, controls the past’ holds very true because it was only after the occurrence of a shift in the political atmosphere of the country that people began drawing their inspiration from nationalist history and looking up to extremist leaders who primarily used Hindu symbols, alienating a huge part of the nation’s populace.
In history, a certain period is always examined in terms of either the period that precedes it or succeeds it and the process of reading history, in a manner that follows a certain pattern is a limitation of the discipline because while nationalist history might have been the need of the freedom movement — at a time when the British had stripped India of its pride and dignity, it was India’s ancient history and the golden age fallacy, which most nationalist historians drew upon that instilled a sense of self-reliance in the Indian.
However, nationalist history has outlived its purpose. It made attempts to counter the British way of reading Indian history and in the process of doing so, fell victim to its own contradictions. In a way, nationalist history kept falling back upon Eurocentric history, in terms of the ideas it propounded, unconsciously accepting the superiority of the coloniser and ultimately suffering the same limitations that European historiography did.
The truth is we are all closer to history than we appear to be at first glance. The contribution of nationalist historiography, to identity building, remains uncontested. The formation of the Republic of Ireland would not have been possible had the Irish not been able to exploit their sense of Gaelic Nationalism, and it is true that now when Mongolia is trying to build a national identity, they draw upon rulers of the Mongolian empire like Genghis Khan as national leaders.
It was Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who through his book The Arctic Home in The Vedas, had tried to instil a sense of social pride within the Indians by establishing a link between the colonised and the coloniser. He speculated that the Aryans used to life in far-off and cold regions, like the Arctic, from which they migrated to Asia and Europe in search of land and since Indians were descendants of Aryans, and India was first inhabited by the Aryans, speakers of Indo-European languages, the Indian should not feel inferior to the coloniser.
Sir Syed Ahmad Khan had also made a similar claim while working on a commentary on the Bible – the first of its kind by a Muslim. In it, he argued that Islam was the closest religion to Christianity, of course, he did so with the same intents that Tilak must have had while writing his book.
History is never read without a motive and most people come to the discipline with a preconceived notion of what history is and cast their findings as they seem fit to substantiate their claims, that are supplemented with selective reading. As long as we maintain this interface and read history backwards, as long as we keep going from the present towards the past, we cannot help but insert obliterations.
Cultures can be obliterated and replaced when there exists a cultural vacuum, this vacuum was created by the British who chose to brainwash Indians and then imposed the colonial mindset to fill in for the vacuum, something we never rid ourselves of. For example, no one really talked about Mahmud of Ghazni’s massacre of Somnath as an attempt of religious conquest, before it was brought up in the House of Commons in 1843 [Romila Thapar] and then we have the Nobel-prize winning Late VS Naipaul referring to Vijayanagara as ‘the last standing Hindu bastion in history’ and Amartya Sen loosely referring to Aurangzeb as Dara Shikoh’s “more sectarian brother.” Sometimes, we don’t realise it, but through generalisations, we choose to stand in the way of our own vision.
What is unsettling is that the ruthless, dogmatic textbook narrative of history arbitrarily obliterates and tries to get all the points on a graph to conform, so that it is possible to have a linear equation. History in India has often been taught as no more than a tussle between the indigenous and the Other, where the Other becomes a homogenous anomaly.
And, in order to make history more accessible in recent years, public intellectuals have tried shaping history in the public context by revising it instead of reviewing it. Widespread general ignorance about the country’s history is even being promoted in the best universities, which have become locations for mass critical misreadings of history.
Studying history has always meant searching for the closest possible alternative to the truth, but a widespread general ignorance about the country’s history is being promoted in the best universities, who’ve been conducting uncritical readings of history, while they protest against academicians like AK Ramanujan and Kancha Ilaiah.
We have a discipline from which all history has been removed and now all that we are left with is either politically correct historiography or historical propaganda that serves an agenda. In this atmosphere, it is not surprising at all that millennials and Gen-Z have come to imbibe what they’ve found themselves surrounded with, ramifications of which we saw almost twenty-seven years ago.
While the truth is expansive and ungraspable by the human intellect, history in India has always been about accommodating everything, giving a space and a sense of belonging to everyone, who came and stayed and not just pushing them out of the centre stage and driving them into the peripheries. It is only if we vow to shape history in this sense, that the vitality of the discipline will survive and we will be able to understand the truth in the most holistic sense of the word, at the least.