I am writing this on Maharana Pratap Jayanti (June 2) and puzzling through the history wars of the moment. In the common sense of the historical world that we grew up in, and that now seems to have all but disappeared, history was immense fun. It opened up the imagination to an incredible variety. Its purpose was never easy moral or political judgement or the search for comfortable narratives or simplistic explanations. It was not a world where the function of history was, to find, as is often said, a common delusion about kindness and a common platform for the hatred of the other. In the world of this history, one never had to choose sides. If you wanted a moral framing at all, you could be a votary of both Akbar and Pratap, trying to imaginatively see a certain kind of integrity in both their projects.
There was no hesitation in acknowledging Aurangzeb’s bigotry. But one did it in a slightly sotto voce voice, not for political correctness, but because of the realization that the magnificence of the two historical cultures that I inhabited, Jaipur and Jodhpur, were often facilitated by deep collaboration with Aurangzeb. What would exorcising him even mean? Hunting down every collaborator who was at the frontlines of his army or provided him finance? Would Man Singh and Jaswant Singh also have to disappear as names?
Even the moral debates were wider. The battle over motives in history is one, that for the life of us, we could not understand. Was the desecration of temples, whether by Mahmud of Ghazni or Aurangzeb, driven by the motives of asserting political power or economic gain as secular historians want to assert or was it an act of religious bigotry? How does one even ascertain this? Would it make a difference? Would it make a moral difference if we said the demolition of Babari Masjid was politically motivated, not religiously motivated? Or as one of our history teachers used to say, he would be even more morally offended by temple desecration if it turned out it was done for me opportunism rather than out of genuine conviction. It was a way of challenging the unexamined assumption that somehow a deed done under the sign of earthly functionality (power or riches) made it a less loathsome act than if it were done out of piety. At least the fanatic is not destroying lightly. He may be deluded, but he has not destroyed you for a trivial reason.
The point is not to settle these questions. It is to remember a context where they could be discussed without violence, censorship or community pride hovering in the background. In retrospect, what made that possible was a degree of detachment. One of the things we had to do in school was what used to be known as Socially Useful Productive Work. We read and recorded cassettes, and wrote exams for visually impaired university students, a practice we continued into the summers of our college days. In retrospect, this was an unexpected gift. It meant reading hundreds of hours of textbooks in Hindi and English. And two things stand out. I am genuinely puzzled by the idea floating around that dynasties like Cholas or Rahtrakutas were sidelined in North Indian schools and colleges. Often these textbooks were terrible introductions to the craft of history. They were compendiums of arguments. The good answer had to know what both Irfan Habib and Jadunath Sarkar or RC Majumdar and Romila Thapar had to say. The methodological premises were capacious. If I am recalling correctly, one popular set of textbooks, written by the widely read VD Mahajan would, in explaining the victory of Ghazni, invoke everything from their more agile military mobility to their discipline on account of the fact that Islam prohibited drinking. But their very prosaically put together lists of arguments often up unexpected conjunctures and argumentative possibilities.
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It is said we are entering new history wars, where the old shibboleths of Nehruvian and Marxist histories are being set aside. There is great non-academic but serious history being written. Academic historiography in India has a lot to answer for. It was often limited in the questions it asked, the methods it deployed, and the political ends it sought to sometimes serve. It was just not linguistically deep enough to explore the vast ocean of Indian history. Whole fields were sidelined — intellectual history, the history of science or just even political history. But this was not some vast conspiracy to sideline “Hindu” history or heroes, it was a limitation of the methods and training and cable-like character of many academic disciplines. Though equally, it has to be asked, why so many of our well-endowed centers of traditional learning outside the academy, which had all the languages and manuscripts, did not also broaden their fields and horizons.
But the contemporary fire and brimstone over history is unlikely to lead to a deeper understanding. This is because we are confusing wars of history with the wars of memory. The distinction between history and memory can be overdrawn. But it is an important distinction. As Pierre Nora put it, memory looks for facts that suit the veneration of the main object of recollection, the task of history is always complication, analysis and criticism. Memory has an affective dimension, it is supposed to move you, and constitute your identity. It draws the boundaries of communities. History is more detached, and the facts will always complicate both identity and community. History is not a morality tale as much as a very difficult form of hard-won knowledge, always aware of its selectivity. Memory is the easiest to hold onto as a morality tale. History, even if written from the present is about the past; Memory is a kind of eternal truth, to hold onto, and carry forward.
So when the next public discussion of Rana Pratap or Prithviraj or Aurangzeb or Shivaji takes place now, it will not be a battle of bad versus good historians (that is a good battle to have). It will be between forms of memory. The facts are at best props for the dramas of creating kindness and finding enemies. We can truly have true history wars only when we are we have a sense of wry detachment and equanimity about the past. Otherwise what we have are wars of memory, which are sometimes necessary. But they often devour both the present and the past in violent furies.
The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express