Speech Melba Society

History’s many hues

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I love to see the circularity with which some issues are rehashed on social media. Like last night’s leftovers warmed up for lunch. And dinner too. When elections get nigh anywhere in the country, the same sudden flurry of challenges pop up to readings of history. The same suspicions about how a historical character or event is portrayed. The same questions about why roads or towns are named after this or that leader. Or why history textbooks focus on the Mughal period alone.

None of this would ordinarily be problematic — questions and challenges are the lifeblood of a democracy. But these queries are not so much based on facts as on wishful thinking and colourful, rather traumatised, reworkings. History is just another subject, like maths or chemistry, and based on some verifiable facts. Of course, it’s hard to pick sides in an algebraic equation as one often does in history, but one still needs to be objective, to set aside personal feelings of humiliation or pride or vengeance and focus only on how events in the past played out.

India’s ancient civilisational past has many astonishing achievements to its credit. From philosophy to literature, grammar, arts, mathematics, and even sexuality, the subcontinent produced highly knowledgeable and researched treatises at a time when the West was still grappling with daily baths. And it’s well and good to take pride in this remarkable past, but I wish we would do it without constantly dragging it into the present. The value of Sushruta Samhita’s ground-breaking work in medicine is not in the least bit diminished because it doesn’t have cures for Covid-19 but try saying that to a WhatsApp warrior. You will end up with two PPTs and a pie-chart.

This has meant that at any given time, someone somewhere is either obsessing with “traditional” remedies to the extent of arresting anyone who questions the efficacy of cow-dung as a Covid cure. Or we have goons burning copies of the Kamasutra because they claim that sacrilege such as sex is not “our tradition”. This mix of false pride and false shame is a deadly concoction, guaranteed to bog us down in a debilitating, wearying and entirely needless cycle of low self-esteem that in turn leads to aggressive self-assertion. What next? Are we going to raze down the walls of the Khajuraho temples to prove how sanskaari we are?

The 1921 Moplah Rebellion leaders have now become Chief Villains and Wipeout Candidates. The uprising involved peasants who were largely Muslim, landlords who were largely Hindu, and a British administration that was Christian — a tinderbox at the best of times. Add to this exploitative labour conditions and oppressive colonial laws and you get resentment, anger, bloodshed. When the revolt happened, it was many things simultaneously — a peasant uprising coloured by religious bigotries, an anti-colonial struggle coloured by labour issues, a class struggle complicated by caste and religious categories. We need to step back and look at this moment, and at all of history, with the widest angle lens possible and that lens is certainly not WhatsApp.

An Akbar with a syncretic religion called Din-i-elahi that merged all faiths is as much India’s past as a joyless Aurangazeb with his emphasis on Sharia law. The British and the railways they keep boasting about is as real as their destruction of indigenous industries, which they boast a lot less about. A messy mix of all of this constitutes India today, and we don’t get to pick and choose which bits we will accept or not — it’s all ours. There are no convenient heroes and villains and much less are there unsullied legacies of good or evil.

While it’s unfashionable to say anything good about Nehru and his colleagues, one thing they did do in 1947 was to acknowledge and respect the mess they inherited and to realise that this mixed-up, contradictory and conflicted history was the foundation they had to build upon. And for a country as socially, culturally and religiously diverse as this, messy compromises are the only thing that can work going forward as well. It’s time we made peace with this rather than concoct a monochromatic past to achieve what we imagine will be a monochromatic future as well.

Where the writer tries to make sense of society with seven hundred words and a bit of snark


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Printable version | Oct 18, 2021 4:37:33 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/historys-many-hues-society-opinion-2021/article36268046.ece

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