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Home > History Writing at Risk > India: The inconvenience of the past | Janaki Nair

India: The inconvenience of the past | Janaki Nair

1 October 2015

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The Hindu, October 1, 2015

[Photo] TIGER’S LEGACY: "To demean the memory of Tipu Sultan, a complex and contradictory character, is to undermine the inconvenient complexities of Indian history." File photo shows the Karnataka tableau of Tipu, which created a controversy during the Republic Day Parade in New Delhi in 2014. — Photo: Sandeep Saxena

Indian history is becoming a laundry list of things we cannot know, need not know, should not know, and a small proportion of things — decided in advance — that we must know

The looming spectre of irrelevance is haunting the halls of academe, and especially the dusty corridors of departments of history. The challenges emanating from streets, websites, community gatherings, newspaper articles, legislatures and political parties, unhinged minds and not least the Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR), bode ill for the discipline. Professional historians are not merely being called to account; they are being asked to make way for a surer, more dependable, and unambiguous account of the past for which their meagre skills are inadequate.

For some time now, the votaries of the Hindu Right have maligned the approach of what they describe as Liberal-Left scholars, interchangeably described as anti-Indian, anti-national and anti-Hindu. Such historians are faulted for their focus on social and economic structures, for critical and evaluative rather than “pride-inducing” engagements with the past, and for insisting that history, while firmly anchored in material and immaterial evidence, also calls for disciplined imaginative and interpretative powers. Now, there is also a developing distrust of the historical methods of several generations of historians who have, in the last 40 years at least, gone beyond the certainties of a singular history as a way of including ignored regions, groups, sects and perspectives. Their work is now criticised for continuing to bear all the marks of the colonial hold over the Indian mind.

Clean slate

To uproot these “intimate enemies”, as the new head of ICHR, Professor Yellapragada Sudarshan Rao, has repeatedly suggested over the last few months, one must begin on a new slate, shed all earlier interpretations, and simultaneously enlist the methodological skills of the sciences, on the one hand, and other unnamed or loosely defined methods on the other.

The obsession with pushing back history to loyally serve the present may seem a very poor historical enterprise indeed, but not a worthless scientific exercise in the ICHR’s chief’s reading. With an ‘8000 year’ past to recover, and above all digitise, which he has declared as one of his bounden duties, Prof. Rao insists on freeing history from the stranglehold of historians and enlist instead both the “objectivity” of scientists and the imaginations of babes and sucklings. So, he says, “historical research is not the forte of professional historians alone. The ‘truth’ coming from a child should be welcome.”

This presents a real challenge to the historian: at one end, it undermines interpretation, and at the other, allows for relatively fact-free and claim-rich, child-like accounts of the past. Prof. Rao proposes the eternal truths enshrined in the Vedas since “we know that empirical studies in social sciences may have relevance only to the present or near future”.

If the “historian’s” task is to only find material to fit pre-given truths, then existing history departments will be rendered redundant. But it is not just the spectre of unemployment that professional historians face. It is the massive degrading of their skills. Liberal Left historians have sought explanations, rather than meanings, from the past. Now, poltergeists are surging up from below to challenge the fact-respecting historian. There a large and increasing number of “truths” about the past that rail against particular historical figures, communities, and even events. They are largely unencumbered by any obligation to be anchored in fact. So, even as we are enjoined (by the likes of the Hindu Right) to produce a single teachable, readable history, there is an equal clamour to edit, suppress, or simply forget those parts of the past that are not “glorious” enough.

Convenient erasures

Indian history is thus becoming a laundry list of things we cannot know, need not know, should not know, and a small proportion of things — decided in advance —that we must know. The endangered history teacher may soon be forced to focus on debates and discussions about changing consumption patterns in early modern Europe, latifundia in Latin America, or the Boxer Rebellion in China. In other words, the only histories that may not (yet!) attract the wrath of myriad groups, whose muscularity ironically accompanies an ever-ready emotional brittleness, may be those that lie well beyond the reach of these subcontinental history wars.

Take the latest demand that the actor Rajinikanth stay away from playing Tipu Sultan in a biopic proposed by the redoubtable Ashok Kheny of Karnataka. What a fine cinematic moment has been lost in the “warnings” issued to Rajinikanth against donning the sarpesh of an 18th century monarch immortalised in Kannada verse as the Mysore Huli (tiger). I can just picture Rajinikanth making his resplendent sword disappear over the fort walls of Srirangapatna, slay the hapless Cornwallis, and return to the satisfied soldier’s hand!

Apart from the claim that Tipu was a “tyrant”, a “murderer”, and an “outsider” to boot, is the claim that he was anti-Tamil. This counters Indian history as we know it, for our inconvenient past is littered with such tyrants, murderers, and 18th century monarchs who were engaged in expanding their territories without fear of or favour to any particular language group. To the professional historian, there are many ways of assessing Tipu’s legacy, depending on which of the abundant sources are consulted. By colonial accounts, he was a tyrant, if only because he was their implacable enemy. (Uncritically accepting such sources only asserts what Prof. Rao dreads: the colonial hold on history). In many of his own statements and letters and communications, Tipu displays the skills of exaggeration, regarding captives taken, people put to death, and other claims of religious bigotry. Then, there are the material remains — of temples inside forts, grants to temples, and Hindu symbols in construction. But there is also an equally robust popular culture in Kannada, Tamil, Malayalam, Marathi and Telugu that celebrates his memory and his valour in folk songs and lavanies. Some of it may mourn what was lost in his time.

Which of these materials does the historian privilege? None. Or rather all of them must be critically assessed and valued for the times in which they were produced. To demean the memory of Tipu Sultan, a complex, contradictory and yet unique representative in an epoch of modernising monarchs, is to undermine the inconvenient complexities of Indian history as a whole.

We have clearly come a long way from the late 1940s when the newly independent nation crafted its “sacred” document, the Constitution. In that, Nandalal Bose chose Tipu as the exemplar of opposition to the British in the 18th century. Rajinikanth himself, a complex son of three linguistic cultures, Marathi, Kannada and Tamil, would surely not want to be robbed of a chance of portraying an equally richly complex hero. But for that we will need, once more, the skills of the discredited professional historian.

(Janaki Nair teaches at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. )


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