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Kerala Literature Festival: historians warn against the selective reading of the past

Photo: A.M. Faruqui  

If history is a labyrinth of our follies and wisdom, then the historian is a modern-day Theseus, navigating the corridors of half-truths and lies with a ball of red string. At the Kerala Literature Festival (KLF) 2020 in Kozhikode, historians turned interlocutors as they tried to sift through India’s past to make sense of its turbulent present.

As of January 6, at least 31 people have died in the violence related to protests against the CAA. After JNU students were attacked on campus by a masked mob, fellow students from small towns and big cities renewed their battle cry against the government, many reading aloud from the Preamble. Women continue to occupy Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, while the people of Kashmir are struggling against a new reality as generals call for war and the Centre marches towards its goal of implementing the CAA, which threatens to further split the country along religious lines.

Historians are trying to make sense of such events by revisiting the past, re-examining it for answers. Since 2018, there have been at least five books on the Mughals, one on Gandhi, one on the rulers of the Deccan, and two on Savarkar. And these are just some of the more popular works.

Parvati Sharma, author of Jahangir: An Intimate Portrait of a Great Mughal (2018), is not surprised by this trend. “We have a situation where history has become the most volatile subject that you can study. People are becoming hugely agitated about what happened all those centuries ago, and a section of society believes that there is a need to reclaim and rectify ‘what was done to us’. It’s almost as if we are fighting our elections in the 16th century,” she said at the sidelines of KLF.

It’s a shame

The Delhi author believes that this interest in historical figures — at least in Jahangir — is the result of a backlash against the propaganda. “People do not like to be harangued, and want to know for themselves what was going on at the time. The other thing is, we do have a very rich history that is not being written about in this way, which is a shame. There are so many fantastic stories. You could pick any king, any dynasty and find a narrative.”

In the hands of a canny author who has the ability to sift through historical material and separate fact from agenda-driven hyperbole, the result can be a multifaceted account of a capricious leader who shifts from benevolence to cruelty in a heartbeat.

When he was still a prince, Jahangir had a man skinned alive before his eyes, causing his father Akbar to exclaim, “But until today we have not ordered so much as a sheep to be skinned in our presence”.

This is the same king who rode a bullock cart at night with empress Nurjahan by his side, who allowed his subjects to discuss and debate religious topics freely, so much so that an Italian traveller wrote: “In India, there is Liberty of Conscience, and... a Man may hold or change what Faith he pleases... Not only, in fact, might a person profess any faith, he might even rail against another’s without undue trepidation.”

This, said Sharma, is the same man who had a Sikh guru executed for political reasons; a Shia cleric beaten, possibly under pressure from sectarian factions in court; and enjoyed long, spiritually fulfilling conversations with a Brahmin ascetic.

Quite contrary

History is replete with such conflicting figures. Take Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, for instance, who is the flavour of the season. The BJP-led government reinstalled a plaque at Cellular Jail in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands where the freedom fighter was once incarcerated. It had been removed in 2004 by the then Congress petroleum minister, Mani Shankar Aiyar, after it was first installed there by the Vajpayee-led government.

Savarkar’s role in the freedom struggle upends the narrative that it was solely a non-violent movement. From the First War of Independence in 1857 till the Royal Indian Navy mutiny in 1946, there has been a continuous chain of armed struggle in different parts of India. “Abhinav Bharat sitting in Maharashtra was coordinating with the Bengali organisation, Anushilan Samiti, formed by Sri Aurobindo and his brother Barindra Ghosh, who were tried in the Alipore bomb case,” said historian Vikram Sampath, who tackles the subject in his 2019 book, Savarkar: Echoes from a Forgotten Past, 1883-1924.

“The same bomb manual that Savarkar got smuggled from London is sent to Nashik to murder a British official there and also in Bengal. This caucus of revolutionaries was operating across India: I think these other narratives, of what exactly was happening in those very eventful days of India’s freedom struggle, need to be told,” said Sampath.

In Jallianwala Bagh: An Empire of Fear and the Making of the Amritsar Massacre, British historian Kim A. Wagner documents the violence after 1857. “In British colonial imagination, the ‘Mutiny’ never ended,” writes Wagner.

The problem arises when proponents or opponents cherry-pick some aspects to make their case. Savarkar, who popularised Hindutva, is a case in point. “He is a man of multiple contradictions: a revolutionary in his youth who is also a sensitive poet, an orator and dramatist. He suffered the most inhuman torture at Cellular Jail, and started India’s first secret society of armed revolutionaries, Mitra Mela, which later became Abhinav Bharat,” said Sampath, adding that history becomes the casualty when leaders are appropriated to suit a cause.

A space for everyone

In an unrelated session, Member of Parliament Kanimozhi — “balancing the tact of a politician with the honesty of a poet” — spoke of the pitfalls of cult politics. “I’m not defending Tamil Nadu, but Indians love to have a very strong leader; somebody we think is strong enough to make others listen to them. But, we also know that it claims a big price. We have seen it in the past, and we are seeing it now... In Tamil Nadu, people celebrated leaders. But whether it was MGR or my father, they were not absolute powers. They had to obey rules within the party structure. What we are seeing today goes much beyond all that. There are one or two absolute powers, and the entire nation, the entire Parliamentary system, the legal system, every institution, has to fall in line. And now we realise the price we are paying for this.”

Tipu Sultan is another polarising figure who our politicians are trying to pigeonhole as either a cruel ruler who forced conversions or a benevolent king who gave grants to temples. “It is not an ‘either-or’, but an ‘and’. He was both things,” said historian Manu S. Pillai at a session aptly titled ‘Indian History: A Mosaic of Ironies?’

Tipu was extremely brutal in territories he came to conquer. “But in Mysore and other settled territories you saw a different side of him. The same man acted in different ways in different contexts,” Pillai said.

Citing the example of protesters carrying images and quotes of both Gandhi and Periyar at anti-CAA rallies — men who were polar opposites — Pillai pointed out that each generation reinterprets history for its own needs.

In one of his essays in The Courtesan, The Mahatma & The Italian Brahmin: Tales from Indian History (2019), Pillai brings out the dichotomy between the two men. Where Gandhi was the embodiment of saintly piety, Periyar exemplified rebellion. Where Gandhi romanticised rural contentment, Periyar envisioned an ambitious age of aircraft and heavy machinery. While Gandhi renounced sex in his 30s, Periyar married a 30-year-old in his 70s. Where the Mahatma’s nationalism was immersed in Hindu morality, Periyar was an atheist who wrote op-eds titled ‘Honeymoon in the Hindu Zoo.’”

India exemplifies such contrasts and carves out space for everyone to co-exist. “The Constitution looks at all the existing (cultural and other) differences in India and helps us surpass them. It creates a situation where our differences can survive without any one dominating the other,” said Pillai.

And it is this that the people are fighting for. While Kanimozhi urged Kerala and Tamil Nadu to continue the fight to save India and protect the Constitution, and historian Ramachandra Guha railed against the Left, the Right, Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and the Congress, Rajdeep Sardesai warned against predicting the future in an India that has always been in a state of flux.

On the final day of the festival, away from the shores of the beach, a group of people staged an anti-CAA protest near the airport. Perhaps, the dread for the future that many of us feel is also tinged with hope.

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Printable version | Jul 25, 2021 3:09:03 AM |

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