History of History
From Herodotus’s Histories to S Krishnaswamy’s Indus Valley to Indira Gandhi, it has been a long and frenetic effort to grapple with the truth of the past. The grand quest cannot but continue through the future, as successive events show.
The Greek historian was building his thesis on a murky foundation of mythology while his modern Indian counterpart set out to document an ancient civilization coming down to the twentieth century. Past or future, nothing remains static, everything being ever open to revision, because, as Albert Camus says, there is no truth, there are only truths. And truth has to be constantly reviewed, if need be, rescinded.
Krishnaswamy’s documentary was made about a half century ago. It was part of an undeclared plan to chronicle the glory of a civilization culminating in the origin and growth of Indira Gandhi. Her decline was to be documented by others who wanted to divest her of her due berth in history. As if to foil their plan, she made available to the posterity her version of history in a capsule buried in the earth.
Recreation of history was a passion for anyone who was someone before Indira Gandhi. So is it now, reasserting the inexorable validity of Basheer’s fictional figure who kept mumbling My Grandfather Had An Elephant. Broadly, three revisionist streams can be identified in the study of Indian history. One, the Congress view of things, two, the grandfather-had-an-elephant approach to the Hindu halcyon days and three, the proletarian version which flourished with Damodar Kosambi in India and Eric Hobsbawm in Europe.
In the second category was P N Oak who set up a seminal Institute for Rewriting Indian History. Oak debunked the deference with which he thought India’s Muslim past, so to say, was being studied. So much so he had an unorthodox theory for the origin and authorship of the Taj Mahal. Oak inspired fun and frivolity. There was even a demand for his works to be removed from Parliament House library.
To his ilk, Tara Chand’s magisterial Influence of Islam on Indian Culture is not a favorite reading. They would rather hail the harrowing chronicles of what Muslim marauders did to Vijayanagara. Across centuries, Robert Sewell’s account of the total raid on that “forgotten empire” has been searing through our psyche.
Sewell concludes his disturbing eloquence with these words: “Never perhaps in the history of the world has such havoc been wrought, and wrought so suddenly, on so splendid a city; teeming with a wealthy and industrious population in the fun plenitude of prosperity one day, and on the next seized, pillaged, and reduced to ruins, amid scenes of savage massacre and horrors beggaring description.” Enterprises of such vandalism are sought to be highlighted in the textbooks of history prepared by the National Council for Educational Research and Training(NCERT). Its endeavor is to give Indian history textbooks a degree of balance and comprehensiveness. Why not, for instance, enlarge the scope of history by bringing the Pallava and the Chola accomplishments within its ambit? Why not discontinue the obsessive preoccupation with the battles of the Mughals almost to the exclusion of the heights scaled by those regimes of southern India?
The campaign for balance and comprehensiveness has come in for criticism, particularly the so-called Left history buffs. Their comrades in Kerala, where they are in power, are working for a secularist desideratum. They indeed have a point to make there. For one thing, it will avoid dividing the past on religious lines and help evolve a consensual approach on the basis of socio-economic principles. For another, it will give a boost to Indian pluralism, and resolve issues that arise from the multi-religious character of the Indian nation.
Laudable objectives indeed, but no one mistakes their unregenerately proletarian strategies for anything other than a political ploy to earn the allegiance of Muslim masses. The Hindu masses never uniting as a phalanx historically, non-Hindu consolidation may look like a need as well as a possibility. The fact, however, is that total secularization of history, or, for that matter, any other subject, will be hard to accomplish in India’s polyglot milieu. The communist dispensation in Kerala has decided to teach history in schools as before, not honoring New Delhi’s weltanschauung.
Proletarian perceptions, if they may be so defined, have often been at variance with Indian traditions and views which are marked by a spiritualist underpinning. Whether re-evaluating an episode of the freedom struggle or negotiating an alliance with a bourgeois political section, Left leaders had long taken a stance none too helpful in fostering a politically healthy society. An unchanging view is with regard to what has been characterized as the Malabar Rebellion of 1921. The Left lobby likes to look at it as an agrarian revolt, inspiring fun and frivolity, as the Oaks of our times did it in another historical context.
Revision of history is not a passion limited to India, or, to its tiny state, Kerala. Revisionist ventures have been reported from time to time in every region, every religious approach. They seem to happen across the world, across India, with an arresting, esoteric rhythm. In the limited scenario of Kerala, time-honored views about the second Chera empire and its self-indulgent golden age between the tenth and twelfth centuries have been rudely questioned. But the formulations of amateur historians like P K Balakrishnan have not yet found universal acceptance. But it has fortified the theory that history is hard to make, harder to revise.
Such simultaneous posers and answers to historical questions have, as we said before, shown a certain repetitive ring. It is marked by what Carl Jung would have called synchronicity, many different things taking place at the same time in diverse settings. Revision of history is being attempted all over the globe, not as part of a search for self identity as in pursuance of a given leader’s anxiety to install himself or herself in the endless gallery of time. The more powerful a leader, the more the hostility he provokes, the more his obsession with the historical image.
Reports from South Korean capital Seoul suggest that the new-found enthusiasm for the fascist fringe is not inconsiderable. The Falange Movement leader, Jose de Rivera, was a great supporter of the dreaded and discredited fascist regime run by Franco. Rivera’s body was exhumed the other day when crowds thronged to offer salute to the man of the murky memory. An exhumation of that order was executed long ago when Vatican brought the body of Pope Formosus from his grave and dressed up in papal habiliments to face fresh trial for a minor indiscretion.
The old vernacular saying is still valid: Slap your mom, you will find someone to endorse it too. How Rivera and Franco will be portrayed in Spain’s new history in the making will be worth watching. Korea is a different story. Its loquacious leadership is divided between those who stand for closer ties with North Korea and those who shun the Kim company.
Dictators like history. They order appropriate revisions of the past from time to time to make sure usurpers do not sully or hijack their reputation. It is said that Joseph Stalin.who expertly managed the Soviet Union’s murder machine was a connoisseur of music and history, besides his pet project of liquidation of dissent. Leon Trotsky who lost the power war to Stalin was aghast that the dictator had made history his handmaid. Before his head was broken with an ice axe in his hideout in Mexico City, a caption Trotsky gave to his historical account was: How Stalin Falsified History!
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