Sunday, February 24, 2013

There is no single reality that defines the past

By Swapan Dasgupta

There was a time when history was an engagement involving the dead, the living and the unborn. Today, thanks to the multiplication of isms and the epidemic of prefixes (post-modernism, post-colonial, neo-liberal, et al), the story of the human experience has been reduced to conversations involving tiny groups of ‘professional’ historians. The wider citizenry that should, ideally, have informed perceptions of their heritage and inheritance have been disdainfully left out of the process.

The results have been horrible. An India that was in any case relatively unconcerned with history has become even less so. An enlightened yet critical view of how our ancestors coped with challenges and uncertainties have been replaced by either idyllic or prejudicial fantasies. By far the most damaging contribution has been that of ‘scientific’ history which, thanks to its impersonal nature and inherent dryness, has virtually killed popular interest in the past. For the aam aadmi, history has become a Bollywood hand-me-down.

This perversion has had two consequences. For some, not least the political class, the rendering of the past has become an aspect of contemporary politics—tales to be moulded and presented as facets of a contested nationhood. To the completely uninitiated, history has become an extension of mythology—a process that conveniently bypasses chronology and empirical rigour. By definition, any appreciation of the past involves a great deal of tentativeness. Yet, if mass reaction is any guide, everything from Shivaji to Gandhiji has become bound in unflinching certitudes.

As a busy politician preoccupied with problems on his doorstep, it is unlikely that British Prime Minister David Cameron was sufficiently sensitised to the minefield he was walking into in Amritsar last Wednesday. Having chosen to visit that city, primarily to visit the Golden Temple, he couldn’t escape the obligation of visiting the Jallianwala Bagh, the site of the infamous massacre in April 19. Under the circumstances, he did what modern sensibilities demanded: he called it a “deeply shameful act” that “we must never forget.”

Cameron is a consummate politician, deeply conscious of doing the “right thing”. As such, his measured comments in the condolence book were a darn sight more tactful than the Queen’s equivocation in 1997. During her disastrous visit that year she had described Jallianwala Bagh as a “difficult” episode whose “sadness” must, however, be balanced by the “gladness” that also marked the three centuries of Indo-British engagement. The Duke of Edinburgh—who, incidentally, was more fascinated by a sign advertising Bagpiper whiskey during his drive into Amritsar—added his inimitable touch by asking if the casualties were really as high as Indian nationalists had claimed.

Predictably, Cameron’s expression of remorse didn’t satisfy the permanently aggrieved. They wanted nothing less than a full-throated apology, akin to former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt going down on his knees before a Holocaust memorial in Poland in 1970. My friend, the historian Patrick French tweeted his astonishment that Cameron had invoked Winston Churchill—a man whose callousness contributed to the deaths of some three million people in the Bengal famine of 1943.

The allusion to Churchill’s indignation may well have been odd but viewed through the prism of history Cameron may unwittingly have made a more complex point.  The killing of peaceful protestors outraged Indian opinion as never before—much more in fact than the bloody recriminations that followed the rebellion of 1857, an event that, ironically, spurred a wave of loyalism to the Crown. More significant than Rabindranath Tagore returning his Knighthood, Jallianwala Bagh destroyed the moral edifice on which the British Raj was constructed. In asserting his no-nonsense implementation of martial law, Lt-General Dyer in fact scored a self-goal from which British rule never recovered. It lost its self-esteem.  

If Cameron had any scope for apology, it is to Britain for Dyer’s pig-headedness, an idea riddled with comic absurdity. For India, the Amritsar massacre was a human rights violation; for Britain it was an imperial catastrophe and the beginning of the long road to national decline.

Viewing history as a series of certitudes forecloses awkward conclusions. Like the present, there is no single reality that defines the past, a point to consider the next time we make it a contemporary battlefield. 

Sunday Times of India, February 24, 2013

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