Most of the time we imagine history – we carry in our mind a vision of the past that we believe to be true. Given that very few of us are actually studying history these days, or reading it for pleasure for that matter, there is little that can bridge the gap between the vision and the reality. Sometimes the gap can be very wide indeed. How can we test the truthfulness of our vision without investigating it ourselves?
I am proceeding on the basis that it is futile to suggest people read alternative accounts of history and weigh their respective claims to objectivity and truth. Rather, I am going to propose something simpler that is more within the grasp of the overwhelmed citizen of the modern age. I am going to suggest a recourse to lived history that requires nothing more than looking around oneself and noting the patterns and rhythms of ordinary life.
The past is political, which makes interpreting it very tricky. In this post we try and illustrate some of the pitfalls involved in thinking about the past.
One common tendency is to look at the past from a position that is anchored in the present. If the anchor is political it nearly always leads to finding an interpretation of the past that helps to justify or strengthen the stance in the present. In The Idea of India, Sunil Khilnani puts it very plainly: “In India, as elsewhere, present politics are shaped by conceptions of the past. Broadly, there have been two different descriptions of Indian history…”
We need not be concerned here with the details of the two descriptions. We only need to note that more than one interpretation of the same facts is possible and that the choice depends upon which political position in the present is being supported.
It is sad that the history we are taught in our countries is so one-dimensional that even the thought that the 'Other' might be semi-intelligent (let alone great) makes people catatonic. The predictable reaction is either to impugn the motives of the writer or to find selective evidence to prove that the real blame rests entirely on the ‘Other.’ The alternative of sifting through the arguments on their merits remains alien, unacceptable, impossible, or just too tiresome.
The reason Jaswant Singh’s book has made such a splash is because he is a front ranking politician with a very high reputation for integrity (for which, read Strobe Talbott's Engaging India) and belongs to the BJP, all of which make the story impossible to ignore. Otherwise, this is an argument that has been made before and forgotten.